Robots in Convoy: convoy operations and other logistics missions could be the first use of large robots. However, the role of remote-controlled armed robots able to look and shoot 'around the corner' in dangerous urban environment situations may soon gain momentum.
The US Department of Defense's Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise identifies four broad mission sets for such vehicles:
* force protection missions including explosive ordnance disposal, route clearance/demining/area clearance/mobility, fire fighting and decontamination
* logistics including transportation, refuel/resupply, battlefield medical applications and humanitarian assistance
* reconnaissance including perimeter/site security and early warning, short range (around the corner), long range (outside weapons range) and chemical biological nuclear radiological and explosive sensing
* direct contact with lethal effects and less-than-lethal effects.
The Mule is intended to perform elements of each of these mission sets.
The Mule is comprised of four major components: a 6 x 6 Common Mobility Platform, the ANS, a Centralized Controller and three mission equipment packages enable three variants to be assembled:
* the XM1217 Transport Mule (Mule-T) is designed to 'carry about one tonne of equipment and rucksacks for dismounted infantry squads with the mobility needed to follow squads in complex terrain'. It will be used for casualty evacuation
* the XM1218 Countermine (Mule-CM) variant will be equipped with the Ground Standoff Mine Detection System (GStamids) enabling it to detect and neutralise mines and mark cleared lanes through minefields
* the XM1219 Armed Robotic Vehicle--Assault-Light (ARV-A-L) will be equipped with a reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition package and armed with a small-calibre gun and four Javelin missiles to support dismounted infantry units.
With a weight of 3.5 tonnes, all Mule variants will be transportable by CH-47 Chinook helicopter. The Mule features an advanced 6 x 6 independent articulated suspension coupled to in-hub motors powering each wheel which enables it to climb a 1.5-metre step, cross a 1.5-metre gap, traverse slopes greater than 40%, ford water to a depth of 1.25 metres and cross obstacles as high as half a metre while compensating for varying payload weights.
General Dynamics Robotic Systems is leading the development of the Autonomous Navigation System (ANS), which will perform the driving navigation function. A smart navigation system is the key element of a robot if it wants to be truly autonomous, as it will have to carry out the brainwork to understand the surroundings and plot a course accordingly.
The navigation system has been tested in a series of Robotic Convoy Experiments (RCX) beginning with Phase I conducted in August 2007 at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. This was designed to 'test basic robotic convoy functionality and accuracy with obstacle detection and avoidance technology'. The test vehicles were a General Dynamics Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle and an LMTV. During the trials the vehicles were driven in tele-operation mode and also navigated independent of soldier control. Phase II of the RCX was conducted in mid-2008.
The army is scheduled to deliver the first of 16 prototypes--five Mule-Ts, six ARV-A-Ls and five Mule-CMs--in mid-2011 for testing scheduled to continue until 2013.
General Dynamics, in collaboration with the US Army Research Laboratory, has developed the 4 x 4 Tactical Autonomous Combat-Chassis (Tac-C) which is designed to be driven by a soldier or programmed to operate autonomously. The Tac-C has been designed to have the speed and performance of an off-road vehicle. A high performance turbo-charged diesel enables the Tac-C to achieve speeds of up to 128 km/h when manned and 56 km/h cross-country and up to 88 km/h on roads in the autonomous mode. The vehicle can carry a payload of 900 kg. Initial trials have focused on such roles as cargo carrier and medical evacuation. Further development could see an assault variant equipped with a reconnaissance mast, an automatic-loading 60-mm mortar and a direct fire weapon such as a 12.7-mm heavy machine gun.
In late 2008 General Dynamics received a contract from the US Special Operations Command to supply the Combat Autonomous Mobility System (Cams) already demonstrated in the Tac-C to support a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration.
Both the army and US Marine Corps are funding a range of technology initiatives to explore the potential for using robotic technology in convoy missions, such as the 26 January 2009 Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (Crada) between Tardec and Oshkosh Defense. The starting point is Oshkosh's Terramax, which is based on the company's 4 x 4 Marine Tactical Vehicle Replacement logistics vehicle. This features the company's Command Zone drive-by-wire technology which allows computer-controlled steering and direct electronic control of the acceleration, braking and transmission systems. The Terramax features a lidar (light detection and ranging) system, camera-based vision and a GPS/IMU system for operation and navigation purposes. The Terramax participated in the Darpa's 2004 and 2005 Grand Challenge events and the 2007 Urban Challenge, and significantly, was the only purpose-designed military logistics platform to participate in these events. The Terramax was one of only four vehicles to successfully complete the 2005 course.
The Crada covers a three-year collaborative effort to integrate the Convoy Active Safety Technology (Cast) surrogate system onto the Terramax to 'create a lead vehicle that can navigate and operate in missions, while communicating route information to another unmanned follower vehicle'. All vehicles in the convoy must be capable of safe 'near-autonomous' operations among vehicles, people, animals and other obstacles at operational speeds and in tactical environments. Oshkosh will also provide nonproprietary platform information to assist in the integration of Cast technology into the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT), the Heavy Equipment Transporter (Het) and other vehicles that it supplies to the US Army. At the US Army Tactical Wheeled Vehicle Component Technology Demonstrations in Yuma, Arizona in January 2006, Oshkosh demonstrated the transition of technology from the Terramax to a Palletized Load System (PLS). The PLS, which features an onboard load handling system and a 16.5-tonne payload, is designed to transport containers carrying ammunition and other critical supplies or large tanks holding fuel or water.
In a parallel effort, Oshkosh announced in March that the US Naval Surface Warfare Center is sponsoring a collaborative project to develop and evaluate potential uses of the Terramax as a Roboticized-MTVR in different mission-specific scenarios.
Tardec is managing the Cast programme, which is intended to develop a low-cost robotic convoy capability for current force tactical wheeled vehicles. Tardec has set a target cost of a robotic retrofit kit for under $ 20,000 per vehicle. The technology was publicly demonstrated integrated onto two BAE FMTV logistics trucks during the Warfigher Experiment I, held at Fort A P Hill, Virginia in October 2007. The Cast system does not remove the driver from a vehicle. Instead it enables drivers behind the lead vehicle in a convoy to switch to a robotic mode, which allows the driver to concentrate on situational awareness such as roadside bombs and other threats. In the demonstration the two trucks were fitted with a global positioning system, a sensor package consisting of two laser detection and ranging sensors, an adaptive cruise control millimetre wave radar with two colour cameras, a communication link and an operator's control box with on, off, follower and leader buttons. In the 'follower' mode the system maintains a set distance between vehicles. The goal is for convoys to operate at speeds of between 60 and 100 km/h on dirt roads. As rear-end collisions are one of the leading causes of convoy 'breakdowns' on operations it is intended that the Cast system will also improve safety.
In mid-2008 the Israel Defense Force received its first Guardium for evaluation and the system has since entered service. The Guardium was developed by G-Nius, a joint venture formed by Elbit Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries. The Israel Airport Authority is evaluating the Guardium for possible use as part of its airport security system. The Guardium is based on the 4 x 4 Tomcar light all-terrain vehicle that is used by the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli Border Police and can carry a payload of up to 300 kg, including a light armour shield to protect vital systems. It can carry a wide variety of sensors, including video and thermal cameras, with auto-target acquisition and capture, microphones, loudspeakers and a two-way radio. The Guardium can also be equipped with lethal weapons such as a machine gun or less-than-lethal weapons. The 80-km/h-top-speed vehicle features autonomous operation allowing for precise steering across pre-defined routes programmed in its mission profile. Any weapon system that might be fitted is directed and fired by operators in the main control centre, who can also opt to drive the vehicle by remote control. Possible uses for the Guardium include perimeter and convoy security, surveillance and reconnaissance, communications relay, armed action and logistics.
More focused on urban environments, one of Rheinmetall's field of research work involves the use of a Wiesel 2 as base platform for its 'Move-It' systronic demonstration programme. The vehicle carries a rear-mounted, radio-controlled, rubber-tracked Telemax robot that deploys without requiring its operator to dismount, as well as a quadruple-rotor Air-Robot drone that uses the Wiesel 2 Digital's 'bonnet' as take-off pad. The main objective of the two-man crew Wiesel 2 Digital is to allow a squad to explore the vicinity of the vehicle before engaging itself into a hazardous area or street. Should the ground or airborne scouts not suffice to clear the path ahead, and knowing that an armoured vehicle is a target of choice for adequately-armed insurgents, the crew can dismount and remote-control the Wiesel 2 itself whilst remaining under concealed cover. The Wiesel is equipped with three nose-mounted cameras and one mast-mounted camera while onboard control and display systems are also used to analyse pictures provided by the Air-Robot or the Telemax.
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|Date:||Aug 1, 2009|
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