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

Bulletproof Classrooms: Solution or Sign of the Times?

school_shootingsWith the recent upsurge in school shootings – 43 in the last three years, resulting in 76 and 64 injuries – its little wonder why various school-based options at are being explored. These range from more guns (arming teachers and administrators) to incorporating special alarms that would allow for high-speed response. But perhaps the most creative (albeit odd) response comes in the form of a bulletproofing a classroom.

Specifically, armored whiteboards and bulletin boards (known as “Safeboards”) are being proposed as a last line of defense against gunmen. Developed by the International Armoring Corporation – a Utah-based company that manufactures lightweight armored passenger vehicles for heads of state, celebrities, and even the Pope – these boards are unobtrusive classroom objects that double as bulletproof barriers.
safeboard1In the event of a shooting, a teacher could manually slide and lock them in front of a door within a few seconds. Another version folds away from the wall to create a classroom safe haven that could fit up to 37 average-sized first graders. The Safeboards are capable of resisting the bullets of high-powered rifles, like those used in a number of school shootings in recent years.

The company began developing the product last year before the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut took place. After a few school officials near IAC’s headquarters heard about how the company manufacture lightweight armor for protective vehicles, they asked if there were any affordable products that could improve safety in the event of a school shooting.

safeboard2Bulletproof doors already exist, but they expensive and are very heavy. This can be problematic since these doors still need to be used by children dozens of times a day. According to IAC’s CEO Mark Burton, the sliding Safeboard, made with the firm’s standard lightweight material, starts at $1,850 and is light enough that it can be open and closed even by children.

Though no purchases have been made yet, the risk management director of the David School District of Utah (home to some 70,000 students), a school architect and a police liaison witnessed a demonstration of the technology. The district has already upgraded its alarms and camera systems, but director Scott Zigich, indicated that additional measures are being weighed:

Just this week [the country] had a shooting at an airport, a shooting at a school, a shooting at a mall. We are very active in trying to increase the safety level of our students and employees due to the frequent nature of violent attacks.

hardwireThe state of Utah and IAC are hardly alone on this issue. Earlier this year, another company in Maryland responded to the need for added security by developing small armored whiteboards that would act more like individual shields. Here, the company behind the design is Hardwire, whose product is already being featured at the Worcester Preparatory School in Berlin, Maryland.

Interestingly enough, these whiteboards use the same light material that is used by company to protect military vehicles from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, many schools have come to see the issue of gun violence in terms of guerrilla warfare, and are responding accordingly. According to Hardwire CEO George Tunis:

[The Whiteboards] basically take handguns out of the equation. We can certainly make them to stop any threat in the world, but what we wanted was something handheld for the teachers.

SchoolShootingsFor some time, a debate has raged around the United States, especially in the wake of Sandy Hook shooting. At its core is the question of what constitutes appropriate defensive measures for schools in a society where guns are easy for almost anyone to obtain. And some schools have considered armed guards or even armed teachers.

However, people like Mark Burton believes guns as a defense weapon often do more harm than good in schools, and considers the Safeboard to be a less disruptive and cost-effective measure that could give a classroom under siege needed time until police arrive. For budget-strapped schools, the decision is a financial issue as well as a safety one.

school_shootings1Over the lifetime of the product, Burton claims a Safeboard would cost as little as $5 a student, and IAC will also offer a financing program. But ultimately, its about finding ways to deal with the issue that doesn’t involve escalation. As Burton explained:

This is whole new territory. It’s kind of a fine line to walk. It is a sensitive issue, but in some cases, I think it could save lives.

And in the end, one has to wonder, are armored classrooms the only recourse to arming teachers and administrators? Is the issue of gun control really so elusive and untouchable that Americans must choose between more armor or more weapons in schools? What does it take to protect our children without treating our classrooms like they are warzones?

Sources: fastcoexist.com, www.wjla.com