By Grace V. Jean
The Defense Department is pushing hard for the development of fully autonomous robots that can replenish supplies, evacuate casualties and even search for explosives. Driving this demand is the large number of troops being killed by roadside bombs.
Experts have said that it could take years before the first robotic systems are tested and deployed for duty.
A Blacksburg, Va.-based company has demonstrated the art of the possible in a recent Marine Corps exercise that showed how a humvee, laden with computers and a suite of sensors to help it “see,” can navigate several miles of mountainous terrain mostly on its own to resupply marines atop a summit.
The autonomous remote control humvee, or ARCH, system retrofits standard military vehicles for unmanned and autonomous operations, says Michael Fleming, CEO of TORC Technologies, a robotics engineering company. There are two humvees per system — one “lead” unmanned vehicle that is outfitted with an integrated autonomous navigation system and one “chase” manned vehicle that contains an operator control unit.
The autonomous navigation system was originally developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Urban Challenge in 2007, a race that pitted teams of robotic cars and trucks against each other as they carried out simulated military resupply missions autonomously in a suburban course. Out of an original field of 89 contenders, Team VictorTango — a collaboration between Virginia Tech, TORC and other industry partners — was one of three teams that completed the culminating event.
TORC subsequently received funding from the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization to adapt the technology for use in counter-roadside bomb missions. The organization wanted a two-humvee system with a mechanism for an operator seated in the rear vehicle to control the autonomous one.
TORC engineers designed an operator control unit, a two-screen interface with a joystick. One screen allows an operator to view the video from the lead vehicle. The other screen shows the vehicle’s planned path and related map information in much the same way that a commercial navigation device displays guidance and direction for drivers. The joystick allows the operator to pan the camera and to take control of the vehicle, if necessary.
“Autonomy still has some limitations. Having that ability to drop back into teleoperated control is always valuable,” says Andrew Culhane, business development manager.
The Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory asked the company to demonstrate its technology as part of an unmanned system experiment in conjunction with a predeployment exercise at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif.
The company first trained two lance corporals on the system during a two-day event at Hawthorne Army Depot, Nev. Engineers taught the marines how to build maps, to program missions and to teleoperate the vehicles. Then they met the lab team in California.
On the mountain, a marine unit called in a resupply mission and one of four unmanned systems transported the payload of food, water, batteries and other supplies.
When a resupply was assigned to them, the two marine operators commenced programming the mission into the ARCH system. After specifying a landing zone, an estimated delivery time popped up on the screen. The vehicle then was loaded up and taken to a staging point to leave base camp. They placed the system into autonomous mode and off it went, says Culhane.
The ARCH system ran a total of three resupply missions up the mountain. Two of the missions required the humvee to travel 3.5 miles and return. One mission demanded that the vehicle carry a payload of more than 800 pounds along a distance of 8.5 miles and then return to base. The system traveled at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour.
On every mission, the marine operators tailed the autonomous vehicle and were able to maintain control in one of the three modes: autonomous, semi-autonomous or teleoperated.
“We never had to step in and take over manual control of the vehicle,” says Culhane. “Every mission they got better and faster with the systems. That was very encouraging for us.”
For safety reasons, when the autonomous system approached the base camps, one of marines hopped in and drove it like normal humvee, says Culhane.
The technology was one of four robotic systems that the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab looked at. Three were ground technologies, and one was aerial. “I deeply appreciate the support we got from industry on that project, but I think anybody who was out there would recognize that technologically, we’re just not quite there,” says Vince Goulding, director of the lab’s experiment division.
The ARCH system encountered mountainous terrain and roads with switchbacks and steep grades. The dense foliage and chasms at times created GPS-denied areas that complicated the unmanned operations, says Culhane.
“Nothing worked as well as they would have liked,” says Goulding in remarks during an expeditionary warfare wargame at Quantico, Va.
Though the autonomous systems have a ways to go, they are showing promise. “This is a very important capability. It’s very hard and we need to stay after it,” Goulding says.
The experiment specifically tested out the ARCH system’s capabilities to carry out resupply missions. But there are other missions that the vehicle could have accomplished, such as casualty evacuation, says Culhane.
“This was originally designed to be the lead humvee in a convoy to counter the IED threat,” he says. “Our vehicles could have just as easily brought somebody off the mountain as we brought supplies on. We just weren’t tasked with that mission.”
The team is now preparing for another experiment later this month in conjunction with the warfighting lab and the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va.
Based upon the Bridgeport experience, engineers have been adjusting sensor positions on the system and fine-tuning the way terrain is classified for obstacle avoidance.
“It’s a difficult process. You don’t want to run over somebody running in the road, but you want to run over a thing of sticks or grass. Differentiating between those is quite a challenge,” says Culhane.
The company is working with the lab to combine all of the vehicle sensors into a roof-mounted payload, he adds. That would minimize the system into two “boxes,” — one containing the computing system that would go inside the vehicle, and one containing the sensing system that would sit outside on the roof.
Another challenge is in reducing costs on the systems. When the wars first started, the government would pay anything for a robotic system that could save a life, officials say. “That’s no longer the case. Making this cost effective and reliable is becoming more and more of an issue,” Culhane says.
Even a conversion kit that automates vehicles that the government already owns must be affordable. “I don’t see the Army or Marine Corps paying $5 million for autonomy to be added to a $150,000 humvee,” says Fleming.
Costs on such systems are coming down significantly, company officials point out. Sensors that are being employed on the ARCH increasingly are being applied to civilian vehicles by the automotive industry.
A potentially tougher challenge is maturing autonomous navigation technologies in a dynamic and cluttered environment, says Fleming. Imagine the complication of an autonomous system driving down Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., with the hoards of pedestrians, traffic lights and other moving vehicles that a human driver has to contend with. The company is working with DARPA to solve that problem. It also is trying to predict unpredictable behavior.
“By definition, that’s impossible, but there are some algorithms and statistical probabilities that we’re applying to be able to predict what a pedestrian is going to do at a crosswalk,” explains Fleming.
TORC also is enhancing its operator interfaces with more user-friendly solutions.
One new product is called WaySight, a 1.5-pound handheld device with a monocular scope that allows users to tag GPS waypoints on the fly. Users peer through the scope and line up a crosshair on a location where they would like to send an autonomous vehicle. They simply press a button and the vehicle navigates its way to that point.
“If the commander wants to send the vehicle somewhere, they can essentially point and click rather than having to load up aerial imagery and provide those points,” says Culhane.
The device operates with a range of six miles line of sight and it can also work in GPS-denied environments.
“We see that being useful, not just for the small vehicles, but also for the larger ones,” says Culhane. Dismounted troops could use the product to command the ARCH system from remote locations.
The company is continuing to demonstrate its technology for the military. It is hoping that the ability to automate current vehicles in the Defense Department fleet will appeal to some customers.
“There’s been a tendency in our industry to design a large autonomous vehicle from scratch. I don’t believe that’s the best approach ... Why not just build an unmanned conversion kit like we’ve built that can fit on top of an existing manned vehicle?” says Fleming.
The kits are designed to rapidly “up-fit” any military vehicles with autonomous capability, says Culhane. To put it on a mine-resistant ambush-protected truck, for example, will require some tweaks to the kit’s algorithms. TORC would request physical characteristics of the vehicle from the manufacturer and those would be loaded into the stability control and motion control algorithms, says Fleming.
“I believe what we’re working on right now has a place down the road for use on multiple vehicles conducting multiple unmanned, autonomous missions. I think that description parallels what the [Future Combat Systems] program was focusing on,” says Fleming.