The next time the US military goes to war in a foreign land, there will be a lot more robots and a lot less soldiers doing the grunt work. One of the first tasks that will be assigned to robots instead of soldiers will be driving - resupply, convoy operations, ground medical evacuation and unmanned reconnaissance are all areas targeted for autonomous vehicles.
That's one of the clear take-outs from recently released information regarding the U.S. Army's unmanned ground vehicle experiments and advanced technology demonstrations.
The Stryker is being used as a surrogate in the testing of the software and hardware being developed to allow the autonomous navigation of any military vehicle, but given the well documented capabilities of the Stryker, it's worth considering just what could be possible a few years from now.
The Stryker is a family of eight-wheel drive combat vehicles built for the US Army that provide a force that will move rapidly as a cohesive combined arms combat team. This is possible because the Stryker combines a number of unique capabilities: it is small and light enough to be transportable in a C-130 aircraft, it is tough enough for the battlefield with integral all-around 14.5mm armour protection, and it is VERY fast for an armoured vehicle being capable of 100kmh on sealed roads and 90kmh off road. With a fuel range of over 450 kilometres, the Stryker can move swiftly across the battlefield or to perform a variety of tasks in any one of its multitudinous guises.
Stryker can be transported on the ground using trucks or by air on C-17, C-5 and C-130 aircraft. The C-5 and C-17 aircraft can carry seven and four Strykers respectively. The C-130H can fly safely carrying a maximum 38,000lb load, so the Stryker's weight, 36,240lb, and size are within the payload limit of the C-130H. The C-130 can operate from smaller airfields in more remote locations. All configurations of the Stryker can disembark from the C-130 in combat ready status.
Stryker comprises two variants - the Infantry Carrier Vehicle (ICV) and the Mobile Gun System (MGS). The ICV has eight additional configurations: Reconnaissance Vehicle (RV), Mortar Carrier (MC), Commanders Vehicle (CV), Fire Support Vehicle, (FSV), Engineer Squad Vehicle (ESV), Medical Evacuation Vehicle (MEV), Anti-tank Guided Missile Vehicle (ATGM), and NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle (NBCRV). Eight configurations are in production now, the first systems having been delivered in Feb 2002. The MGS and NBCRV are in development and will be delivered beginning of 2005.
The purpose of building in autonomous navigational capabilities is to free manpower from the dull, dirty and dangerous activities common to military operations. If a vehicle can be equipped to drive itself from one location to another and have the sensors and "intelligence" to recognise obstacles and avoid them, soldiers can be free to perform other high priority missions. An example could be resupply vehicles self-navigating to a unit with replenishment stocks thereby reducing the need for soldiers to drive 24/7 in a combat zone.
Convoy operations, ground medical evacuation, unmanned reconnaissance, are all applications of the technology.
Known as the Vetronics Technology Integration (VTI) program, the aim is to integrate technologies leveraged from Army and commercial sector developments into C-130 transportable vehicle platforms capable of supplying a mobile command centre and convoy of similar autonomous robotic vehicles operating in follower mode.
The current scenario being evaluated is for a two soldier crew travelling in an autonomous vehicle to control another 10 unmanned vehicles capable of performing shoot, scout, and carrier missions on the battlefield.
Each soldier will utilise a command and control station with advanced decision aids to allow them to manage the unmanned ground vehicles, their own vehicle, unattended ground sensors and unmanned air vehicles.
Under contract to the U.S. Army Tank - Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM), General Dynamics Robotic Systems and General Dynamics Land Systems have successfully completed the first phase of experiments of the five-year Vetronics Technology Integration (VTI) program.