As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “An army marches on its belly”. And like most tidbits of military wisdom, this is one that has not changed with the ages. Whether it’s leading an army of war elephants and hoplites through the Alps, a Grande Armee across the Steppes, or a mechanized division through Central Asia, the problem of logistics is always there. For an army to remain effective and alive, it needs to be supplied; and those supply trains has to be kept moving and safe.
In the modern world, this consists of ensuring that troop and supply trucks are protected from the hazards of enemy snipers, rockets, and the all-too-prevalent menace of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Until now, this consisted of having armed convoys escort armored trucks through hostile terrain and contested areas. But in an age of unmanned aerial vehicles and robotic exoskeletons, it seems only natural that driverless trucks would be the next big thing.
That’s the thinking behind the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS), a program being developed by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in collaboration with major defense contractor Lockheed Martin. This program, which was demonstrated earlier this month at Fort Hood, Texas, gives full autonomy to convoys to operate in urban environments.
In tests, driverless tactical vehicles were able to navigate hazards and obstacles including pedestrians, oncoming traffic, road intersections, traffic circles and stalled and passing vehicles. Similar to the systems used by the first generation of robotized cars, the AMAS program for the Pentagon’s ground troops uses standard-issue vehicles outfitted with a high-performance LIDAR sensor and a second GPS receiver, locked and loaded with a range of algorithms.
That gear, Lockheed said, could be used on virtually any military vehicle, but in these tests was affixed to the Army’s M915 tractor-trailer trucks and to Palletized Loading System vehicles. According to Lockheed, AMAS also gives drivers an automated option to alert, stop and adjust, or take full control under user supervision. David Simon, AMAS program manager for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, described the program in a statement:
The AMAS CAD hardware and software performed exactly as designed, and dealt successfully with all of the real-world obstacles that a real-world convoy would encounter.
Under an initial $11 million contract in 2012, Lockheed Martin developed the multiplatform kit which integrates low-cost sensors and control systems with Army and Marine tactical vehicles to enable autonomous operation in convoys. But not only do driverless convoys add a degree of safety under dangerous conditions, they also move the military closer its apparent goal of nearly total autonomous warfare.
AMAS algorithms also are used to control the company’s Squad Mission Support System (SMSS), a more distinctive and less conventional six-wheeled unmanned ground vehicle that has been used by soldiers in Afghanistan. Combined with robots, like the Legged Squad Support System (LS3) by Boston Dynamics, the development of driverless trucks is not only a good counter to suicide bombers and IEDs, but part of a larger trend of integrated robotics.
In an age where more and more hardware can be controlled by a remote operator, and grunts are able to rely on robotic equipment to assist them whenever and wherever the 3D’s of hostile territory arise (i.e. dirty, difficult, or dangerous), trucks and armored vehicles that can guide themselves is just the latest in a long line of developments aimed at “unmanning the front lines”.
And of course, there’s a video of the concept in action, courtesy of the U.S. Army and TARDEC:
Sources: wired.com, news.cnet.com, lockheedmartin.com