THE automation of driving is proceeding apace—to the point where some American states now allow robot vehicles (with human drivers on board in case anything goes wrong) to be tested on public roads. But armies, too, are interested in automatic automobiles. Anything that preserves soldiers’ lives is welcome, and that is particularly so when they might lose those lives not in the heat of battle but in the humdrum business of delivering supplies.Military drivers, though, have to deal with problems beyond those that make civilian driving hazardous. The average commute or school-run, even in the most dangerous parts of an American city, is rarely subject to booby traps, ambuscades or attack by rocket-propelled grenades. Nor, despite the macho, four-wheel-driveness of suburban sports-utility vehicles, do most such trucks spend much time off-road in the way that an army truck is likely to. The problem of automating military vehicles, then, is a hard one. But Oshkosh defence, a firm based in Wisconsin, is having a go.
Working in collaboration with the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, in Quantico, Virginia, Oshkosh has fitted its standard military truck, the medium tactical vehicle replacement, or MTVR, with a piece of kit it calls TerraMax unmanned ground vehicle technology. If it works, TerraMax will make the job of delivering supplies much safer.
TerraMax uses radar and LIDAR (which stands for light detection and ranging, and involves the use of laser beams to measure the vehicle’s distance from other objects). Together, these sensors create a map of the truck’s surroundings. This map incorporates not only the gradient of the land being crossed but also the nature of the vegetation surrounding the vehicle, and even the thickness of dust swirling in the air. The sensors are able, too, to identify obstacles based on their size and speed—people, for example, are unlikely to be moving at 100km per hour.
All these data are fed through a computer programmed with the truck’s anticipated route. That route can, however, be changed if the system deems it desirable. Other vehicles, and also people, are to be avoided—as are large rocks. Dust and brushy vegetation, not themselves obstacles, might conceal trouble, and so should be approached with caution.
So far the TerraMax-equipped trucks have fared well in trials, including a test earlier this year at Fort Pickett, Virginia. Two of them were placed in convoy with six manned vehicles. For around five days the convoy was subjected to various challenges, including roadside bombs and small-arms fire, but it travelled only slightly slower than a manned convoy would have done—and that, according to Captain Warren Watts, who was in charge of the test, was because of the troops’ unfamiliarity with the system, rather than any inherent defect in TerraMax.
Captain Watts, clearly a cautious man, reckons it might take a decade or more for autonomous trucks to be fully integrated into America’s armed forces, but if TerraMax, or something like it, proves successful then the pressure will be on to use it much sooner than that. Half of the coalition troops killed in Afghanistan last year were the victims of roadside bombs. Automating the process of supply would cut that number significantly.
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