ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Nov. 10, 2014) -- The U.S. Army has invested in robotics technology for many years, and the focus is ever increasing toward autonomous system development.
Matt Donohue is the science and technology ground maneuver technology portfolio director for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.
"My vision is for Army vehicles to have scalable autonomous capabilities," Donohue said. "For Army tactical vehicles, this means scalable autonomy from leader-follower to fully autonomous capable, including the ability to be loaded and unloaded by autonomous material handling equipment."
In Donohue's vision of the future, combat vehicles will have similar scalable autonomy for movement and maneuver, but restricted engagement capabilities.
"Armed robots may be technically feasible, but policy, legal and safety concerns may limit the Army's ability to deploy armed robots in tactical roles," he said.
Although there is still a lot to be done in development, testing and engineering, Donohue is optimistic about the current pace of innovation.
"For certain mission sets, most of the technologies we need for autonomous ground systems are mature and, in some cases, are being offered commercially by the automotive industry," he said. "These include the sensors and cameras used to enable active safety in vehicles, such as self-parking cars, blind spot detection, lane departure warning and lane keeping, backup cameras, adaptive cruise control and active braking."
As these individual technologies mature and gain acceptance, autonomy will evolve layer-by-layer, he said.
"The ability to logically link all of these technologies to enable autonomy for ground applications is one future for the Army," Donohue said. "The near-term application is most likely related to using these technologies for active safety and to enable a convoy leader-follower capability."
Active safety implementations will have a dramatic effect on saving lives and money.
"A significant amount of dollars could be saved annually if we get this right," he said. "Active safety is step one, and it will have a significant impact on drivers. It will save lives."
Donohue noted that retrofitting current Army truck designs with autonomous systems may be like a "MacGyver-like" solution, but it shows the potential for future vehicle designs.
The Army, in its partnership with industry, successfully tested the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System Joint Capability Technology Demonstrator, known as AMAS.
"The success of the [Joint Capability Technology Demonstrator] has the Army thinking about the possibilities of this capability for the future," Donohue said. "While we've all seen basic robots in sci-fi movies and car commercials for a long time, the interesting ones were autonomous ones able to sense their environment and use that information to take actions."
From the Google self-driving car to autonomous vehicles being licensed and allowed on the road in some states, Donohue said it is apparent that industry has become a key player in the world of autonomy.
"Being able to work with and leverage industry investment in autonomy will ensure the technology moves forward for the Army as well," Donohue said. "Partnering with industry will ensure that the autonomous systems will be producible."
Donohue pointed to an annual science and technology budget of about $23 million for investment in the development of robotics and autonomy for ground applications.
"Robotics and autonomous systems have shown promise for many years," he said. "With shrinking budgets and a potentially shrinking force structure, I think now is the time for autonomous ground systems, if done correctly, to make it into the force."
This article appears in the November/December 2014 issue of Army Technology Magazine, which focuses on robotics. The magazine is available as an electronic download, or print publication. The magazine is an authorized, unofficial publication published under Army Regulation 360-1, for all members of the Department of Defense and the general public.
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