The Army’s first armed and unmanned ground vehicle is in the works.
by Mr. Thomas B. Udvare
In 2014, the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) and the U.S. Army Armaments Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) teamed up to integrate a remote weapon system on a robotic vehicle to see if that system could become certified on a Scout Gunnery Table VI course, the same course used to train and qualify ground combat vehicle crews.
The vehicle was a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), and its “brain” was the TARDEC-developed Robotic Technology Kernel. ARDEC contributed the prototype wireless system known as the Picatinny Lightweight Remote Weapon System, which it had developed. The command-and-control HMMWV consists of the Warfighter Machine Interface, developed in-house at TARDEC, which controls and operates the robot and weapon system. Collectively, this Wingman capability allows Soldiers in a command-and-control vehicle to remotely operate an unmanned ground vehicle weapon system.
Initial experiments have met with limited success, but the Wingman program has ignited further investigation into weaponized robotics and how keeping the Soldier-in-the-loop could mitigate many of the gaps seen in today’s autonomous systems.
In 2016, the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) joined the Wingman team with its target acquisition and tracking system, the Autonomous Remote Engagement System. With the addition of the NSWCDD, the Wingman program received three years of funding to demonstrate the technology. The program will culminate in a military utility assessment at an Army national training center or equivalent between 2019 and 2020. TARDEC engineers say Wingman is the research and development (R&D) community’s first step toward weaponized robotics.
“The Wingman technology developed today will be foundational for tomorrow’s advanced fighting vehicles,” said Dr. Robert Sadowski, TARDEC chief roboticist. “The Wingman technology will extend the warfighters’ reach and direct-fire engagement range, allowing our Soldiers to dominate more terrain while keeping them out of harm’s way.”
TARDEC is leading the Wingman development effort with technical partners ARDEC, NSWCDD and the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL), which provides the analysis necessary to assess the Wingman technology from a Soldier’s perspective for operational and training purposes.
Military ground elements in first contact with the enemy often uncover obstacles, suffer the highest casualties and become decisively engaged, limiting friendly freedom of maneuver. Capable autonomous systems could provide a tactical advantage for these operators. However, aggressive state and nonstate actors are also pursuing the development of armed lethal robotics. As the level of autonomous capability increases, automation will spiral into weaponized systems. Unmanned systems deployed by our adversaries could impact the advantage our current reconnaissance forces have in the fight for information and increase the already high mortality rates of these units.
The Wingman technology demonstration program will investigate how to use unmanned assets to project lethality and move effectively with a mounted formation and engage ahead of or along with manned platforms without increasing manpower requirements. The team believes that unmanned assets can reduce casualties by extending the reach of the warfighter through unmatched advanced situational awareness, platform autonomy and targeting in a weaponized unmanned ground vehicle (UGV).
Wingman will begin to develop the concept of operations and tactics, techniques and procedures to integrate weaponized, unmanned systems into the current force and increase operational standoff.
Initiating contact with UGVs gives commanders flexibility and maneuver space to effectively respond to enemy threats, and eliminates some of the risks of casualty extraction. The Wingman technology will allow friendly commanders the ability to disperse manned systems without creating exploitable gaps and seams in their own formation.
In 1997, a computer named Deep Blue beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov. By 2005, two amateur chess players using three personal computers won a chess tournament against supercomputers and grand masters. Teaming amateurs with computers produced a significant advantage over the computers or the grand masters.
Current autonomy technologies aren’t as capable at their tasks as Deep Blue was at its in 1997. Most have gaps in the perception and cognition areas. The use case for lethal robotic ground systems requires a Soldier-in-the-loop in order to pull the trigger. Wingman seeks to combine the perception and judgment of the Soldier with the speed, power and precision of the machine to produce an effective unmanned ground weapon system.
Currently fielded autonomous ground systems require a high degree of Soldier oversight and tend to be limited to a specific mission. They often fail to meet warfighter expectations because of limitations in the autonomy or robustness of the integrated hardware and software systems. These constraints make it difficult to field an effective weaponized robotic platform. The Wingman technology demonstrator will address some of these limitations with today’s autonomous technology by developing manned-unmanned teaming behaviors to iteratively define and decrease the gap between autonomous vehicle control and the required level of human interaction.
“Unlike other autonomous systems that seek to eliminate the operators, weaponized autonomous systems will leverage the Soldier-in-the-loop to automate operations and enhance the Soldier’s reach,” said Keith Briggs, TARDEC’s technical manager of the Wingman program.
The prototype system complies with DOD Directive 3000.09, “Autonomy in Weapon Systems,” and will be used as a surrogate to inform the development of future unmanned weapon systems.
ROBOTIC VEHICLE SUBSYSTEMS
The Wingman Weaponized Robotic Vehicle is an M1097 HMMWV and contains three primary subsystems:
First is the TARDEC-developed Robotic Technology Kernel (RTK), the autonomy system for planning and controlling the vehicle’s mobility. RTK contains driving cameras for remote operation, LIDAR sensors (light detection and ranging) for object classification, stereo cameras for terrain classification, computers for computation, radios for communication, and all the essential hardware, cables and mounts. The system can be manually driven through teleoperation or autonomously driven through waypoint navigation.
The second subsystem is lethality, which uses the Picatinny Lightweight Remote Weapon System. That system can use an M134 Gatling-style minigun or an M240B machine gun. Wingman is currently investigating changing the M240B for an ARDEC-developed Advanced Remote Armament System. This will provide additional capabilities, such as an externally powered, purpose-built weapon to improve reliability and accuracy, the ability to load and clear the weapon remotely and an increased stowed ammunition load without decreasing aim or stabilization.
The Autonomous Remote Engagement System (ARES) is the third subsystem. It provides automated engagement capabilities to decrease target acquisition time with vision-based automatic target detection and user-specified target selection. This system will decrease engagement time and overcome wireless control latency through video tracking, user assisted fire-control and control of the weapon.
The Wingman Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) is currently using an M1151 HMMWV as its command-and-control (C2) vehicle. The C2 vehicle contains the Soldier-machine interface that the Soldier uses to remotely operate the weaponized robotic vehicle. Five Soldiers currently man Wingman’s C2 vehicle. In front sit a driver and a vehicle commander. In the rear seats are a wireless remote weapon system operator, the robotic vehicle operator and a manned machine gun operator through the hatch. The Soldier in the hatch also uses a Long Range Advanced Scout Surveillance System to designate targets and send the coordinates to the robotic vehicle for engagement.
The C2 vehicle contains the TARDEC–developed Warfighter Machine Interface, which provides customized interactive displays for the vehicle commander, robotic vehicle driver and remote weapon system operator. These interfaces will be expanded to accept voice commands to naturally communicate with the robot and provide real-world data on the surrounding environment.
ASSESSMENT AND CERTIFICATION
The Wingman program will assess the performance and feasibility of the technology against a Scout Gunnery Table VI course, which the Army uses to train and certify crews for Army combat vehicles. The course also evaluates the vehicle’s ability to move, shoot and communicate. Generally, a crew and its vehicle must pass the Table VI course—during which they engage both moving and stationary targets—annually, before participating in live fire training or deploying. Putting a robotic vehicle through the Table VI course will allow the team to quantify the tactical performance of an armed UGV and directly compare this to how manned platforms perform.
During a Table VI, the vehicle crew conducts 10 engagements on 16 targets. Target ranges vary depending on the weapon system, and target types vary from infantry silhouettes to armored vehicle silhouettes. To pass, the crew must obtain 700 out of 1,000 possible points. The Wingman program plans to field the first robotic vehicle to obtain a certification on this course.
MODELING AND SIMULATION
Along with hardware and software, -TARDEC, NSWCDD and ARL are standing up a modeling and simulation capability through the development of a Wingman System Integration Laboratory (SIL), which will be used to develop and verify software before conducting expensive live testing. The lab also will make it easier to conduct Soldier virtual experiments to inform and develop future capabilities and train Soldiers before they use the system in live experiments on the range. The SIL integrates the real-world vehicle software within a simulated environment for rapid prototyping, software development and early assessment of interactions between the manned vehicle team and the vehicle.
Current autonomous systems face many issues in the areas of perception, cognition, classification and communications—which prevent fielding effective unmanned weapon systems, especially in hostile environments—Wingman will address these issues by exploring new ways to use the situational awareness of the Soldier-in-the-loop to supplement these capabilities and mitigate gaps in critical areas. As the R&D community’s first step toward weaponized robotics, Wingman aims to reduce casualties and increase standoff for Soldiers, especially those units in first contact.
For more information, go to https://www.army.mil/tardec.
THOMAS B. UDVARE is the deputy technical manager of the Wingman JCTD and works on the Ground Vehicle Robotics team at TARDEC. Previously, he was deputy team leader of the Medium Platform Autonomy team and was the deputy program manager on the Autonomous Mobility Applique System program. Before joining TARDEC, he worked as an aircraft electronic technician at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan. He has a B.S. in electrical engineering from Lawrence Technological University.
This article is published in the January – March 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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