The Tesla Autopilot and Google Car have excited the appetite of industry and the military for unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). They even laid out an excellent foundation for such work going forward. Robotics technology along with military thinking have rapidly evolved since 2009. Then Defense Secretary Bob Gates put paid to the massive Future Combat Systems (FCS) program.

The FCS attempted to invent new technology across nineteen separate manned and unmanned systems, all at the same time. The favored approach was a new step-by-step schedule to build on computing breakthroughs within the private sector to develop an unmanned mini-tank in service around the mid-2020s. The mini-tank is a Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV).

In an age of growing applications of artificial intelligence and robotics, military forces must look away from man-focused military campaigns to robot-driven campaigns. Commercially-available self-driving cars have provided cheaper sensors that are even more effective than those from the FCS era. Then, the sensors needed were highly cost-prohibitive, according to Kevin Mills, personnel at Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering (TARDEC) since 2002. While civilian self-driving cars are still in experimental infancy, they are built to function on good roads with stable wireless connection.

Building upon these commercial efforts, the Army developed experimental robot supply trucks. This program was formally known as the Autonomous Ground Vehicle/Expedient Leader-Follower. The trucks included the added ability for cross-country navigation, and to negotiate numerous obstacle types, without using GPS.

The Army’s robo-trucks will be used with in hybrid convoys with manned vehicles calling the shots. This explains the “leader-follower”concept. This is plainly a cautionary measure by the Army. While the technology may navigate without a leader, the Army remains wary of the possible risks that could occur where something happens that the program cannot handle, such as an ambush. In addition, the sixty or seventy prototype trucks Army units will get for 2020 experiments will run only version 1.0 of the software. The implication is they would not have the ability to pull trailers, for instance.

In the initial stages in fact, the robo-trucks will not be able to go in reverse. The robots will automatically stop if a massive object falls between the manned lead unit in a convoy and the unmanned followers. They will however, need to wait for a human operator to drive them to negotiate the obstacle. This may be by remote control or by actually hopping into the unit and averting potentially deleterious consequences.

A software update will fix all such issues around six months after the prototypes are supplied to the Army units. This update will fix all the problems described above. The trucks will pull trailers with relative ease, negotiate obstacles with poise, and back up computer-guided precision along their individual tire tracks.

Other features might be included in the upgrade, depending on soldier feedback on the initial version. Robotic Combat vehicles will build on the Leader-Follower trucks by adding weapons capability, just as the latter build on commercial autonomous cars by adding off-road capabilities.

The most basic RCVs will be remote controlled by a team of two soldiers, in the manner of two operators flying the Predator drone. The first software version will be able to follow a manned lead vehicle in a convoy without human control, considering it will rely on the same basic software as the Leader-Follower trucks. Yet, the RCV will require a human person to remotely steer it into combat. Staying away from obstacles, dodging enemy strikes, and flanking enemies still remain complex tasks that demand a real physical skilled soldier.

The accompanying soldier will control the “mission payload.” This involves things from sensors that point as the RCV scours for aiming and firing weapons. As soldiers learn to adapt to and utilize technology, the Army is interested in going from two persons remotely operating one robot, to one person controlling one robot, and then one human controlling several robots ultimately. This regardless, the US Department of Defense is adamant that humans will always be somewhat involved where lethal force is used. Analysts have varying views concerning this position. What exactly does this submission portend, especially where our concern for collateral damage is not shared by the enemy? The soldiers will figure out the vast majority of these questions in their own experiments. The Robotic Combat Vehicle is still in its infancy.

The Army is still figuring things out –how it will look and how it will [ultimately] fight. This is the primary purpose of these experiments. To begin experimenting however, the venerable M113 is already seeing modification. This basic armored unit on tracks has served since Vietnam, and in numerous subsequent variants. It is now making way for a variant of the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, Bradley.

The ageless M113 is definitely superior surrogate for the RCV than more modern war machines. The size of the RCV is likely to be in the ten-to twenty-ton range, according to Mills. That’s more subtle than modern armored vehicles. The latest M2 Bradley troop carrier that succeeded the M113 weighs around thirty three tons.

By comparison, the M1 Abrams heavy tank clocks in at close to seventy tons. The bulk of that weight is however, the result of thick armor intended to protect human soldiers inside the tank. The M113, however, is really tiny and offers little protection. In fact, Viet Cong mines could easily decimate it fifty years ago. US and Vietnamese soldiers preferred to ride on top instead of inside it. Without any soldiers aboard, instead wielding quite expendable robots, a vehicle the size of the M113 is an inviting idea.

It is smaller, lighter, and cheaper, so it’s easier to deploy, conceal, supply, steer through narrow paths into potential ambushes. The M113’s is ideal likeness in several other ways. Being a tracked vehicle, it possesses the off-road mobility to keep pace with tracked M1s and M2s much better than with a wheeled 8×8 Stryker. A 4×4 MRAP, Humvee, or JLTV is grossly not suited for this.

The M113 is essentially a big box on tracks, allowing plenty of room for new gear. Plenty of variants already exist for every mission imaginable. This ranges from command posts to self-propelled mortars. What if you are unable to find what you need already parked somewhere? It is possible to get rid of the back and add different payloads. These days, some M113s are being converted to robots.

Three of these will carry standard 12.7 millimeter medium machine guns in a simple mount that is remote-controlled. One will hold an unmanned turret carrying a 30mm light cannon. Turreted M113s are not a thing in the US, but other countries have made them with ease. Installing a drive-by-wire system is another complex modification. Replacing dials, levers, and several other manual elements with digital technology found in most new cars is what this entails.

The idea is to make it easier to involve a robot brain in place of human controllers. The drive-by-wire kit installation is ongoing and the platforms being actively refurbished. The entire robotic kit will be installed within a year and subsequently pass through internal testing at TARDEC before the independent Army Test & Evaluation Command (ARTEC) receives it to certify it for safety. Then, regular soldiers may employ it in field exercises.

The four starter vehicles will constitute a platoon, giving the army room to trail group tactics with the robots working in tandem with two manned Next Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) prototypes delivered between 2019 and 2020. the NGCV modernization team retains oversight of both projects as a single combined human-machine force. Over the longer term, TARDEC intends to build up to twelve, adequate to form a company. Certainly by 2023, the Army will have twelve robot mini-tanks in its possession. The contagious enthusiasm among Army leaders could make this earlier, however. But time will tell if the project is accelerated or not.

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