The Army is attempting to leverage robotics and other capabilities to enable its “leader-follower” concept for vehicle convoys. After years of work, the Army has made strides in developing the technology.
At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, roadside bombs planted by insurgents maimed and killed servicemembers and civilians alike, targeting vehicle convoys ferrying troops and supplies to bases.
To deal with the threat more immediately, the military invested billions of dollars into uparmored, mine-resistant vehicles that could withstand blasts better. At the same time, it kicked off an ongoing, long-term effort to build autonomous “leader-follow” tech that could cut down on the number of soldiers in harm’s way in future fights as well as free up troops for other tasks.
The service is demonstrating progress. It has tested its leader-follower autonomy software at events such as Project Convergence 2021, where the Army tried out technology that can support its offering for the Pentagon’s joint all-domain command and control concept. Additional work is being conducted at bases such as Fort Polk, Louisiana, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
The Army has primarily been using what it calls palletized load systems, or PLS, unmanned follower vehicles, during its experiments, said Maj. Benjamin Hormann, expedient leader-follower project officer at Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center. Soldiers from the 41ST Transportation Company currently own 60 M1075 PLS trucks that are equipped with an autonomy system.
“The unit received new equipment training over two years ago and has implemented a ‘train-the-trainer’ strategy in order to maintain proficiency throughout the year,” he said in an email. “This unit provides real-time feedback to software developers and engineers that get them the capability they want/need very quickly.”
The vehicles are currently using a software version known as LF 1.3.
The Ground Vehicle Systems Center is employing what it calls an “engineering in the dirt concept” where soldier feedback is run through an agile software sprint to develop and update the system every 90 days, Hormann said. Meanwhile, the unit also provides information so requirements and doctrine can be updated.
The Army showed off its expedient leader-follower technology at the service’s Project Convergence exercise at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, this past fall, he said. The annual experiment has been called a “campaign of learning” by officials and is meant to contribute to the Pentagon’s JADC2 effort, which aims to better link sensors and platforms into an operating network.
At Project Convergence, officials employed two versions of its autonomy software and completed more than 3,000 miles of robotics testing, Hormann said. The autonomy system was tested on palletized load system trucks, the cold weather all-terrain vehicle and the logistics vehicle system replacement platform.
The Army plans to test leader-follower technology at Project Convergence 2022 with an autonomous missile launcher demonstrator as part of an effort with Army Futures Command’s long-range precision fires cross-functional team and DEVCOM’s Aviation and Missile Center, Hormann said.
Meanwhile, the service recently completed the final increment of capability improvements for its expedient leader-follower program, he said. For example, the service merged existing autonomy software with a government-owned Robotic Technology Kernel, he said. RTK is the Army’s library of modular software packages that can be used for common ground autonomy software. The software is based on what is known as the Robotic Open System Architecture-Military.
The most recent increment also developed a feature known as “assembly and disassembly” where autonomous PLS trucks could form into a column formation based on orders from a user, as well as “park” the platforms into a line, whether it be from front-to-back or side-to-side, he added.
Another new capability is a “retrotraverse” feature with trailers, which allows the PLS vehicle to reverse and employs what Hormann called a “pin-and-pin-out function.”
This capability allows “the warfighter to back up an autonomous convoy with a trailer without having to get out and put the trailer traversing table locking pin in,” he explained.
Coming up next for the leader-follower program is Army Test and Evaluation Command safety testing for maturation of its software version 2.0 system.
Over the next two years, the 41st Transportation Company is set to participate in three Collective Training Center exercises with leader-follower technology, Hormann added.
The GVSC and product management office for robotic autonomous systems also plan to further mature the technology’s software and hardware, he noted. This includes increased reliability and further hardening of the system.
The Army is currently using a “buy, try, decide” procurement model and a mid-tier acquisition rapid fielding approach when it comes to acquiring the systems, he said.
“There will be a later decision point to increase capability and mass produce the optionally manned leader-follower system for the PLS program of record,” Hormann noted.
The Army has been working on autonomous military vehicles since 1999, he said. Some of the platforms the technology has been tested on includes Humvees, HX60 tactical trucks, RG-31 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, medium tactical vehicle replacement systems, M915 tractor trucks, medium tactical vehicles, LMTV light utility trucks and heavy equipment transporters.
More recently, the autonomy hardware and software systems developed through the Ground Vehicle Systems Center include the palletized load system, the cold weather all-terrain vehicle, the high mobility artillery rocket system as well as the Marine Corps’ logistics vehicle system replacement platform and the Corps’ Joint Light Tactical Vehicle Rouge Fires variant, Hormann said.
One company that has been working with the Army on leader-follower technology is Clarksburg, Maryland-based Robotic Research.
In 2018, the Army awarded the firm a three-year, $49.7 million contract to provide autonomy kits for large convoy resupply vehicles as part of the expedient leader-follower program. Robotic Research has had its participation extended with various National Advanced Mobility Consortium contract vehicles, said Jim Frelk, the company’s senior vice president. It is currently offering the service technical support on the expedient leader-follower effort.
The organization has been working alongside vehicle manufacturers such as Oshkosh Defense to outfit platforms with its leader-follower autonomy software in places such as Fort Polk, Fort Sill and Camp Grayling, Michigan, for testing. The company provides the autonomy software and Oshkosh provides the drive-by-wire kit for the vehicles, he said.
The company has been working on capabilities such as “safe harbor” features, he noted. Safe harbor functions tell platforms what they should do if there is an attack or breakdown in the systems’ sensors.
Leader-follower technology has matured substantially over the years and is at a point where it can now be deployed, Frelk said. “The basic software … that has been demonstrated, in our opinion, doesn’t have a lot left to do before you begin to deploy it.”
However, there are still some challenges and room for improvement. These include the hardening of sensors and better integration between the vehicles and the onboard equipment, he said.
There are typically seven or eight vehicles in an autonomous convoy, Frelk said. They are all equipped with an autonomy kit and any of the vehicles can take over as the “leader” platform.
“There’s no requirement today that there will be a specific vehicle designated” as the lead platform, he noted.
Robotic Research is also working with the Army, the German Federal Ministry of Defence and Rheinmetall to support leader-follower technology with partner nations.
The U.S. Army wants “to expand this capability and make it interoperable with other vehicles … for convoy operations with allied forces,” he said.
While the Pentagon has shifted its focus from counterinsurgency operations to great power competition with adversaries Russia and China, Frelk said there is still a need for leader-follower technology.
“There is still going to be vulnerabilities to convoy operations and [a desire to] to reduce the number of deaths and improve … the functionality of moving things rapidly,” he said. “Leader-follower is going to be useful.”
Additionally, the autonomy packages that are being tested with the leader-follower program are not just relevant for convoy operations, Frelk said. The program has an impact on other vehicles including combat systems.
The same “autonomy kit that’s proved out on leader-follower is being deployed on other systems that are weaponized systems,” he said.
“Think of it as a springboard to combat vehicles and other vehicles being able to operate in GPS-denied environments autonomously.”
The basic software stack is portable and can be used with a variety of systems, but different platforms may require separate sensors, he noted.
For example, the autonomy needed for off-road operations will be different compared to on-road ops.
“It’s a tweaking of the system, not a whole new system,” he explained.
Besides working with the Army, Robotic Research also has contracts with other Defense Department components such as the Defense Logistics Agency, Frelk said. Last year, DLA awarded the company a contract to develop an unmanned autonomous guided vehicle to tow loaded carts inside and outside warehouses.
DLA has 20 storage sites and more than 570 warehouses, according to a Robotic Research press release. The development of the AGV could lead to follow-on contracts for as many as 100 vehicles.
The company is also working with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency on counter-weapons of mass destruction efforts, Frelk said. Meanwhile, in late 2021 Robotic Research completed a $228 million Series A funding round to expand its commercial offerings. That will bear fruit for the military, Frelk said.
“The government gets to benefit from the number of miles that are being driven with similar autonomy capability and the lessons learned there,” he said.
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