August 05, 2013
Credit: Recon Robotics
A decade of counterinsurgency operations has boosted interest in unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) of all kinds, although real-world operational uses have been limited. A good many systems have been designed, built and tested, often in the hands of users, but few types have seen routine use, and applications remain narrow.
UGVs have been widely used, for example, for explosive ordnance disposal (EOD). These machines are tele-operated rather than truly unmanned or autonomous, and are short-range systems—they depend on people or vehicles to put them within range of the objective. Simple “throwbots” that provide operators with a view around a corner or inside a building are also catching on, because they are small and light and—with modern electronic hardware and software—can gather and transmit useful intelligence.
Since the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's first Grand Challenge for driverless vehicles in 2004, UGVs have been gaining attention. Oshkosh Defense's Team TerraMax competed in the second contest in 2005, with the company promoting the use of large driverless vehicles to reduce the number of personnel exposed to the hazards of driving convoys in hostile areas.
So far, however, U.S. forces have not fielded driverless cargo vehicles, although the TerraMax technology—basically, a guidance, navigation and control kit mated to a modern military vehicle—continues to be developed and evaluated, as Oshkosh collaborates with the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University.
Cargo UGVs were deployed by the U.S. Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in a large experiment at Fort Pickett, Va., last summer to demonstrate ways of reducing the Marines' logistical footprint. The vehicles ran safely and successfully at up to 35 mph and on unpaved roads, operated by Marines with three days of instruction. In a later demonstration, two cargo unmanned aerial vehicles operated in fully autonomous mode, and in leader-follower mode with a manned vehicle.
Israel's Guardium program has also shown that UGVs are practical. However, with a large vehicle, safety is a concern. Accidents involving military convoys and civilians happen in the best of times, and the perception of unmanned vehicles rolling through populated areas is a problem.
At the other end of the size scale, the Pentagon's Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (Jieddo) last year requested up to 4,000 “ultra-light reconnaissance robots” for Afghanistan, in response to a joint urgent-needs statement from field commanders. Unlike their larger cousins equipped with advanced tools for EOD, the smaller machines provide a simple means of looking around a corner or inspecting a suspicious object without risking a soldier's life.