US military leads autonomous trend

March 11, 2016  - By
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Virtually all unmanned systems, from drones to autonomous vehicles, use GPS location technology and advanced mapping. As systems evolve, and enemy threats become more sophisticated, new requirements are emerging. The U.S. military is out in front of this trend, developing unmanned autonomous systems at an even faster pace, with more ambitious goals, than the civilian market. This is borne out by several recent tests and announcements, all profiled individually at www.gpsworld.com. This month’s column rounds up their essential details for a skyview of the burgeoning field.

Publisher’s note: Defense PNT columnist Don Jewell will return next month.

Unmanned ground-air collaboration for war-zone delivery

An unmanned Black Hawk delivers an autonomous ground vehicle to a remote site in a demonstration for the U.S. Army of a joint robotic air-ground mission.

An unmanned Black Hawk delivers an autonomous ground vehicle to a remote site in a demonstration for the U.S. Army of a joint robotic air-ground mission.

Carnegie Mellon University and Sikorsky Aircraft used an autonomous helicopter and an autonomous ground vehicle to demonstrate that ground and air robots can perform complex, cooperative missions. In an October 2015 demo, an unmanned Black Hawk helicopter picked up an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV), flew a 12-mile route, delivered the UGV to a ground location and released it.

The drop-zone collaboration promises to keep warfighters out of harm’s way. For example, this type of robotic mission could avoid warfighters’ exposure to hazardous conditions, such as chemically or radiologically contaminated areas.
The Black Hawk was equipped for autonomous operation by Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Co. It delivered a Land Tamer autonomous unmanned ground vehicle from Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center to a remote site, where the vehicle performed environmental monitoring for potential contamination.

“We were able to demonstrate a new technological capability that combines the strengths of air and ground vehicles,” said Jeremy Searock, NREC technical project manager. “The helicopter provides long-range capability and access to remote areas, while the ground vehicle has long endurance and high-precision sensing.”

Once the helicopter lowered the vehicle to the ground, the Land Tamer drove itself off its transport platform to commence its leg of the mission. The vehicle, equipped with sensors for detecting chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear contamination, then found and surveyed several potentially contaminated sites, autonomously traversing six miles in the process. When the vehicle sensors detected potential contamination, operators were able to switch the vehicle from autonomous operation into a tele-operated mode for a more detailed exploration of the site.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udQ3WoK_Wdk

Non-GPS autonomous aerial delivery

A JPADs pallet lands on target, followed by several others still in the air, during recent testing. (Photo: US Army)

A JPADs pallet lands on target, followed by several others still in the air, during recent testing. (Photo: US Army)

The U.S. Army’s Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS) has developed a new capability with a navigation alternative to GPS. In recent tests, JPADS were dropped from planes, and immediately determined their location using optical sensors to compare local terrain with commercial satellite imagery. The new system demonstrated navigation to its intended point, using nothing but imagery to guide it.

JPADS, largely guided by GPS, has already proven its importance in supplying troops with necessary materials and equipment, relying less on vulnerable convoys. However, the new JPADS also works with little knowledge of the aircraft’s location at the drop point.

Dropping critical supplies from the air has allowed the U.S. military to rely less on easily-ambushed truck convoys and helicopter resupply. Exposure to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and ambushed convoys resulted in more than 3,000 causalities in Afghanistan and Iraq through 2007.

JPADS has proven to be an important tool in the Army’s logistics chain in many scenarios to supply troops with material and equipment in adverse terrain and remote locations when ground lines of communication are not possible or deemed too high a risk.

“This is a huge step forward for aerial resupply,” said Chris Bessette, Draper’s JPADS program manager. “By enabling the system to operate using imagery alone when dropped as high as 25,000 feet above Mean Sea Level and upwards of 20 miles away from the target depending on winds, we can ensure that JPADS is even more versatile so troops receive supplies like fuel, ammunition, food, and water in the safest manner possible.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hf-gUOAPMdY

Unmanned teaming, video-streaming

In August, U.S. Army Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft took part in manned-unmanned teaming exercises in South Korea, including streaming video and metadata to an AH-64 Apache helicopter while in flight. The MQ-1C Gray Eagle proved its ability to conduct operations in diverse weather condition, according to manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI). The Gray Eagle is used by the Army for reconnaissance, surveillance, communications, convoy protection, IED detection and precision weapons delivery.

During the exercise, the Gray Eagle UAS streamed video and metadata via a line-of-sight data link directly to the helicopter from extended distances. The Apache then retransmitted the imagery to a One System Remote Video Terminal (OSRVT), allowing field commanders within the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) to receive both live Gray Eagle streaming video and retransmitted video sent by the Apache. Once the Gray Eagle was airborne, U.S. ground forces passed contact reports and target coordinates to operators in the aircraft’s ground control station. The operators were then able to direct the Gray Eagle’s sensors to positively identify and track the targets.

The overall military perspective

A V-Bat UAV from Martin UAV. Applications include aerial mapping, border patrol, shipboard operations and others.

A V-Bat UAV from Martin UAV. Applications include aerial mapping, border patrol, shipboard operations and others.

Worldwide threats will make robotic and autonomous systems’ development important for decades, according to officials speaking at the Unmanned Systems Defense conference late last year.

GPS World’s contributing editor Kevin Dennehy wrote, “Because America has been at war for more than 14 years, unmanned technology has been developing at a rapid rate, perhaps even faster than emerging autonomous commercial systems. The replacement of even manned aircraft has some in the military establishment wary, but others know it’s only a matter of time before most vehicles, surface ships and aircraft are unmanned.”

The Secretary of the Navy said its current manned fighter plane, scheduled to see activity from now until 2037, may be its last to carry an actual human pilot.

The Navy’s Kraken drone munitions delivery system begins its mission underwater,then explodes past the surface to operate in the air. The Air Force also is developing small drones that can be launched and recovered by a larger aircraft after a mission is complete.

An Army initiative called Leader Follower includes rudimentary autonomous convoy operations capability with GPS and base mapping systems, autonomous steering and braking. Army program managers say the program is in staffing, but should be approved in a few months. A full-blown Automated Convoy Operations capability would allow any manned system, including tanks and mobile artillery, to operate autonomously. Last year, the Army and Lockheed Martin successfully demonstrated a driverless line-haul convoy with seven military trucks at speeds up to 40 mph.

Talking about a new generation

Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson, U.S. Army deputy to the assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, said the service is divesting its aging robotics and drone systems, which means future contracts for defense companies. “In 14 years of war, we have rode this equipment pretty hard,” he said. “We believe in modernization, but also looking to buy new systems, which is a new shift in order to gain a competitive advantage over our enemies, who are leveraging unmanned systems.”

The Defense Department recently established the Defense Innovation Unit, based in the San Francisco Bay area, to take advantage of rapid autonomous developments in the Silicon Valley.

Virtually all unmanned systems, from drones to autonomous vehicles, use GPS location technology and advanced mapping. As systems evolve, and enemy threats become more sophisticated, new requirements are emerging.

Underwater UAV for reconnaissance and surveillance

A surrogate LDUUV is submerged in preparation for a test to demonstrate the capability of the Navy's Common Control System at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport in Puget Sound, Washington. (U.S. Navy photo)

A surrogate LDUUV is submerged in preparation for a test to demonstrate the capability of the Navy’s Common Control System at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport in Puget Sound, Washington. (U.S. Navy photo)

In December 2015, the U.S. Navy tested its newly developed Common Control System (CCS) with a submersible unmanned vehicle in underwater missions in Puget Sound, Washington. The CCS successfully demonstrated its capability to provide command and control to a surrogate Large Displacement Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (LDUUV) — an underwater UAV destined for reconnaissance and surveillance missions.

CCS is a software architecture with a common framework, user interface and components that can be integrated on a variety of unmanned systems. It will provide common vehicle management, mission planning and mission management capabilities for the Naval unmanned systems portfolio. Operators used the CCS to transmit pre-planned missions via radio link to the LDUUV’s autonomous controller. In turn, CCS displayed actual vehicle status information to the operators. The vehicle was able to maneuver to the target areas and collect imagery.

“These tests proved that operators could use CCS from a single global operations center to plan, command and monitor UUVs on missions located anywhere in the world,” said Capt. Ralph Lee, who oversees the Navy’s CCS program at Patuxent River, Maryland. “This event also showed us that CCS is adaptable from the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to UUV missions.”

CCS is intended to be compatible across all domains — air, surface, undersea and ground. The Navy initially plans to deploy the CCS on unmanned air vehicles. It will provide common vehicle management, mission planning and mission management capabilities for the Naval unmanned systems portfolio.

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