Will Military Take the Autonomous Vehicle Lead?

November 2, 2015  - By
0 Comments
At Unmanned Systems Defense, warfighters had the opportunity to learn about new technologies from government contractors and see demos in the exhibition hall. (PRNewsFoto/AUVSI)

At Unmanned Systems Defense, warfighters had the opportunity to learn about new technologies from government contractors and see demos in the exhibition hall. (PRNewsFoto/AUVSI)

ARLINGTON, Va. — Despite shrinking defense budgets, existing and emerging worldwide threats will make robotic and autonomous systems’ development important for decades, said officials at the Unmanned Systems Defense 2015 conference held here Oct. 27-29.

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.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said that the F-35, which has been controversial because of its cost and capabilities, may be the last manned fighter aircraft.

Mabus acknowledged the rise in autonomous vehicles not only in the military, but in the civilian world. “Our grandchildren may never have to drive a car. I can’t wait for driverless cars,” he said.

The Navy is so high on unmanned systems that it recently named retired Marine Brig. Gen. Frank Kelley as deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems.

Like the other services, the Navy is experimenting with aviation systems that are inexpensive and small. It is developing swarming drones that are designed to overwhelm a target. Mabus said one of the cool drones that the Navy is developing is called Kraken, which operates underwater, then explodes past the surface to operate in the air.

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.

The Air Force also is developing small drones that can be launched and recovered by a larger aircraft after a mission is complete.

While the meeting was filled with government bureaucrats with the requisite PowerPoint slides detailing how long programs will take, they did say that the services are plowing ahead with autonomous technology that many of their civilian counterparts say are decades away.

Convoy Operations

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.

The follow on to Leader Follower is a full-blown Automated Convoy Operations capability that would allow any manned system, including tanks and mobile artillery, to operate autonomously. Automated Convoy Operations are at least two-to-three years behind the Leader Follower program, Army officials said.

Other Army programs include route clearance systems to defeat underground improvised explosive devices and caches and mine rollers.

With all the new autonomous technology, at least one speaker said the first question should be why an unmanned system is needed at all, given its high cost and long lead times for rollout. “Does the technology enable a [service member] to fight better, or does it just get in the way?” said Lt. Col. Hank Lutz, U.S. Marine Corps joint staff.

Plans to Replace Aging Unmanned Systems

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.”

Jeff Smith, president and CEO of Riptide Autonomous Solutions, holds an unmanned undersea vehicle that has GPS sensors and antenna.

Jeff Smith, president and CEO of Riptide Autonomous Solutions, holds an unmanned undersea vehicle that has GPS sensors and antenna.

The big mantra from the military program managers and senior officials is having an “open architecture” that includes a control segment that works with both manned and unmanned systems. Williamson also echoed the need for standardization, but went further by saying the services should have a list of standards and one place, a facility, to ensure components actually work together.

While the “we want an open architecture” theme was in virtually every speaker’s presentation, one said that there needs to be a balance between the time a product is ready and its interoperability. “The Taliban’s [Program Objective Memorandum] cycle is a lot shorter. Don’t tell me that [your product] is plug and play,” said John Coglianese, U.S. Special Operations Command director, unmanned aerial systems.

DoD Reaches Out to Smaller Businesses, Silicon Valley

Realizing a need to assess new technologies and partner with innovative companies, the Defense Department recently established the Defense Innovation Unit, which is based in the San Francisco Bay area. The office is small with only a few personnel, said George Duchak, who was recently named director.

Duchak acknowledged that some companies suffer from government fatigue in that they see the same presentations over and over.  By being out in the Silicon Valley, Duchak’s personnel can be more receptive and listen, rather than talk at companies. His office is made up of people who seek out new technology and vendors, serve as a conduit to local labs and assess companies who want work with the government, among other activities.

“We are kind of in a honeymoon period [with private companies]. It has been interesting finding companies where their patriotism aligns with whether or not they are going to make money,” Duchak said. “Google has been pretty receptive, not so much with Apple.”

Another group, the National Advanced Mobility Consortium, looks to match technology to defense needs for smaller companies looking to do business with the government. “We are trying to show how to engage nontraditional companies,” said Bill Thomasmeyer, National Advanced Mobility Consortium consultant. Thomasmeyer said it’s tough for a small company or individual entrepreneur to go through the complex government procurement cycle. “They are used to Silicon Valley, which has a 90-day cycle. The Federal Acquisition Regulation is 4,000 pages,” he said.

Currently, NAMC has 274 members, a third of which are not defense companies, Thomasmeyer said.

Future of GPS and Location Technology for Unmanned Systems

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.

“All of our systems use GPS, but we need to operate in a GPS-denied environment,” said Capt. Aaron Peters, U.S. Navy program manager for expeditionary missions.

Other program managers said what’s also needed is GPS units that feature 3-D navigation for autonomous systems.

In addition to basic positioning and navigation of drones and autonomous vehicles, the Air Force is using location technology to geo-locate damage from shell holes at airfields they use in war zones.

This article is tagged with , , , , and posted in Defense, Latest News, UAV/UGV

About the Author:


Kevin Dennehy is GPS World’s editor for location-based services, writing a monthly column for the LBS Insider newsletter. Dennehy has been writing about the location industry for more than 20 years. He covered GPS and location technology for Global Positioning & Navigation News for seven years. His articles on the wireless industry have been published in both consumer and trade magazines and newspapers.

Post a Comment