The Future is Here: Autonomos Mineroller Vehicles

terramax-inlineImprovised explosive devices (IEDs), landmines and other kinds of roadside bombs are a major threat to Coalition troops serving overseas. And even though combat operations in Afghanistan are coming to a close in the near future, military planners and developers are still looking for ways to address the kinds of threats that are all too common in these fields of engagement.

One such developer is U.S. defense contractor Oshkosh Defense, which recently unveiled its new M-ATV, an armored vehicle specially designed to resist blasts from IEDs and mines. This specialized, high-tech troop transport detects explosives using special ground penetrating radar and a 12-wheeled mineroller which attaches to the front. But now, the company is going a step further.

M-ATV_Light_P7A1130_rgb_720x300Oshkosh now claims it wants to move soldiers even further from the danger zone by putting them in another vehicle entirely and making the minesweeping truck drive itself. For the past decade, the company has been developing an autonomous driving technology called TerraMax. This self-driving system can be applied to vehicles already on the road, and was unveiled during the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge.

It’s now equipped with radar and LIDAR, which uses lasers to detect nearby objects, along with a drive-by-wire system that electronically controls engine speed, transmission, braking, and steering. The system does more than steer and hit the throttle and brakes. It can intelligently control a central tire inflation system and driveline locks to navigate deep sand or mud, all without any input from the operator.

terramax-inline2Similar to the technology that powers Google’s self-driving cars, TerraMax is adapted for use in much tougher conditions. But whereas Google and big auto manufacturers can carefully map roads, lane markings, and speed limit signs before its vehicles are even on the road, Oshkosh doesn’t have those advantages. It’s vehicles must navigate hostile terrain in territories that have not been thoroughly mapped and imaged.

So it made TerraMax capable of combining overhead imagery from satellites and planes with standard military maps generated through geographic information systems. That lets soldiers define roads and other obstacles, much like with a commercial GPS system. Once given a defined course, the vehicles can navigate themselves while operators set things like vehicle speed and following distance.

M-ATV_withTerraMax_J4A1330_720x300-CO1Granted, these aren’t entirely autonomous vehicles. Whenever a convoy reaches an impasse  of some kind, the M-ATV will need to alert an operator and ask what to do. However, it is still an impressive system that achieves two key objectives. One, it allows the military to move more cargo with fewer personnel; and two, it makes a convoy look like it’s carrying more personnel than it really is, which is likely to deter attacks.

Oshkosh’s unmanned vehicle technology is still in testing, but the company has spent the last three years working with the Marine Corp Warfighting Lab and the Office of Naval Research to get it ready for the battlefield. And while the technology is currently being developed for combat vehicles, it could also be used in civilian settings – like autonomous snow clearing at airports or police bomb disposal units.

mfc-amas-photo-02-hThough Coaltion forces are drawing down their presence in Afghanistan, Oshkosh’s and other unmanned ground vehicle concepts will likely be used in conflicts around the world in the years to come. Company representatives gave demonstrations of the technology at Eurosatory 2014, a defense industry trade show, and say they received positive feedback from other nations as well.

And it is only one of several military-grade autonomous technology project currently in development. Lockheed Martin is also working on the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS), which also allows for autonomous or semi-autonomous driving. With the development of unmanned systems showing no signs of slowing down, autonomous-vehicle technology is likely to advance considerably in the coming years.

And be sure to check out this video of Oshkosh showcasing the M-ATV and TerraMax system at Eurosatory 2014:


Sources: wired.com, oshkoshdefense.com, humanisticrobotics.com

The Future is Here: AirMule’s Autonomous Demo Flight

airmule1Vertical Take-Off and Landing craft have been the subject of military developers for some time. In addition to being able to deploy from landing strips that are damaged or small for conventional aircraft, they are also able to navigate terrain and land where other craft cannot. Add to that the ability to hover and fly close to the ground, and you have a craft that can also provide support while avoiding IEDs and landmines.

One concept that incorporates all of these features is the AirMule, a compact, unmanned, single-engine vehicle that is being developed by Tactical Robotics in Israel. In January of 2013, the company unveiled the prototype which they claimed was created for the sake of supporting military personnel,  evacuating the wounded, and conducting remote reconnaissance missions.

airmule-1Now, less than a year later, the company conducted a demonstration with their prototype aircraft recently demonstrated its ability to fly autonomously, bringing it one step closer to carrying out a full mission demo. During the test, which took place in December, the craft autonomously performed a vertical take-off, flew to the end of a runway, then turned around on the spot and flew back to its starting point.

All the while, it maintained altitude using two laser altimeters, while maintaining positioning via a combination of GPS, an inertial navigation system, and optical reference to markers on the ground. These autonomous systems, which allow it to fly on its own, can also be countermanded in favor of remote control, in case a mission seems particularly harry and requires a human controller.

airmule-0In its current form, the AirMule possesses many advantages over other VTOL craft, such as helicopters. For starters, it weighs only 770 kg (1,700 lb) – as opposed to a Bell UH-1 empty weights of 2,365 kg (5,215 lbs) – can carry a payload of up to 640 kg (1,400 lb), has a top speed of 180 km/h (112 mph), and can reach a maximum altitude of 12,000 ft (3,658 m).

In short, it has a better mass to carrying capacity ratio than a helicopter, comparable performance, and can land and take-off within an area of 40 square meters (430.5 sq ft), which is significantly smaller than what a manned helicopter requires for a safe landing. The internal rotor blades are reportedly also much quieter than those of a helicopter, giving the matte-black AirMule some added stealth.

BD_atlasrobotPlans now call for “full mission demonstrations” next year, utilizing a second prototype that is currently under construction. And when complete, this vehicle and those like it can expected to be deployed to many areas of the world, assisting Coalition and other forces in dirty, dangerous environments where landmines, IEDs and other man-made and natural hazards are common.

Alongside machines like the Alpha Dog, LS3 or Wildcat, machines that were built by Boston Dynamics (recently acquired by Google) to offer transport and support to infantry in difficult terrain, efforts to “unman the front lines” through the use of autonomous drones or remote-controlled robots continue. Clearly, the future battlefield is a place where robots where will be offering a rather big hand!

 

And be sure to check this video of the AirMule demonstration, showing the vehicle take-off, hover, fly around, and then come in for a landing:


Sources: gizmag.com, tactical-robotics.com

Drone Wars: New Leaks Reveal Human Cost of Drone Strikes

drone-strikeIt would be an understatement to say that drones and UAVs are hot button issue right now. As an ongoing part of the “war on terror”, the use of remotely piloted vehicles to target terrorism suspects remain a popular one within the US, with 56% of respondents indicating that they supported it (as of Feb. 2013). However, when the matter of civilian casualties and collateral damage is introduced, the issue becomes a much stickier one.

What’s more, it is becoming increasingly evident that how the drone program is being presented is subject to spin and skewing. Much like the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs, it is in the Obama administration’s and the Pentagon’s best interest to present the issue in terms of “hunting terrorists” while categorically avoiding any mention of the real costs involved. And thanks to recent revelations, these efforts may prove to be more difficult in the future.

drone_mapIt was just over weeks ago, on July 22nd, that London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism released a leaked Pakistani report that detailed numerous civilian casualties by drone strikes in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). For years now, obtaining information about civilian casualties caused by US and NATO strikes in this region has been incredibly difficult – information which these documents have now provided.

The 12-page dossier was compiled for the the authorities in the tribal areas, the Bureau notes, and investigates 75 CIA drone strikes and five attacks by NATO in the region conducted between 2006 and 2009. According to the document, 746 people were killed in the strategic attacks. At least 147 of the victims were civilians, and 94 were children.

on April 3, 2009 in Now Zad in Helmand province, Afghanistan.This directly contradicts inquired made by the United Nations, which began investigating the legality of the drone program and strikes last year. According to the U.N.’s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights (Ben Emmerson) Pakistan then claimed at least 400 civilians had been killed in U.S. strikes in the country since 2006. Quite the discrepancy.

And while a majority of other tallies relied on media reports of drone strikes, the FATA list was compiled by government officials who were sent out to investigate damage firsthand in the wake of attacks. According to the Bureau, on several occasions officials registered different casualty rates than the media outlets reported.

Drone-strike-damageThe Bureau went on record to say that there were gaps in the information provided, like why none of the names of the casualties were provided, or why civilian casualties were not provided for 2009, the last year covered in the report. It is possible that logistical factors played a role, such as the lack of accurate census data in the FATA region, and that casualty figures for the year 2009 were difficult to obtain due to the acceleration of drone strikes during that year.

It is this last aspect which is likely to give many pause, since it was the decision of the outgoing Bush administration to intensify drone strikes during the last few months of his presidency, a decision which the Obama administration adopted and maintained. And the list provided only shows a gap between the official numbers and those obtained on the ground during the years of 2006 and 2009, when the strikes began.

drone_loadoutWhat are we to make then of the years running from 2009 to 2013, where drone strikes in the western region of Pakistan became a much more common occurrence and the body count – civilian or otherwise – can only be expected to have escalated? This could another reason that figures were omitted from 2009, which is that the Pakistani government was concerned that they might spark outrage if they were to ever be made public.

However, that is all speculation at this point, and more time and investigation are certainly needed to determine what the cost in human terms has been. One thing is for sure though, the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are likely to become increasingly controversial as more information emerges and an accurate picture of the death toll is presented.

drone_map1For years now, the US government has denied that large civilian casualty counts exist, but it continues to withhold the numbers. But some claim those numbers will not shed any real light even if they are released, since it is still not clear how the US forces distinguish between civilians and “militants” or “combatants”.

In a major speech on national security in May 2013, Obama strongly defended the drone program but said the administration would codify the process it goes through before ordering attacks and would work with Congress to create more oversight. However, no promises were made about the number of deaths leading up to this declaration, whether or not those facts and figured would be made public, and strikes continue to take place which violate this new mandate.

obama_dronesAs the saying goes, “the first casualty of war is the truth”. And without much effort, one can easily draw parallels between this latest phase in the “war on terror” to the vagaries of Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, where information was withheld, numbers debated and legalities issued in order to justify highly questionable acts.

And for those old enough to remember, the specter of Vietnam is also apparent here. Then, as now, the public is forced to rely on leaked information and confidential informants simply because the official stories being issued by their government are full of discrepancies, denials, and apparent fabrications. One would think we had learned something in the last five decades, but apparently not!

Sources: huffingtonpost.com, thebureauinvestigates.com