Uninhabited Systems: Multi-Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge

In his announcement on 13 July 2009, the Hon. Greg. Combet, Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science announced an “International Challenge to Develop Military Robots” through a competition known as the Multi-Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge (MAGIC).

1st Sep 2009


Uninhabited Systems: Multi-Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge

In his announcement on 13 July 2009, the Hon. Greg. Combet, Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science announced an “International Challenge to Develop Military Robots” through a competition known as the  Multi-Autonomous Ground-robotic  International Challenge (MAGIC). This competition is being organised by DSTO in partnership with the US Department of Defense (DoD) and is  presently structured as follows:
  • An open invitation for Australian and overseas companies to submit proposals to develop a “multi-autonomous“ ground robot system. From these:
    • Five shortlisted competitors will be invited to present their projects at the Defence Land Warfare Conference in November 2010
    • Research grants to be awarded of $US100,000 to each of five, competitively selected, companies to develop their proposals into prototypes. 

The top three finalists who successfully demonstrate their prototypes at a location in South Australia next year, will receive research awards of $US750,000, $US250,000 and $US100,000 respectively for product development.

Along with the US DOD a total amount of around $US1.6 million has been/will be obligated.

Under a separately funded program the finalists will also have the unique opportunity to qualify for further funding under the US Joint Concept Technology Demonstrator (JCTD) Program, so that their prototypes can be transitioned into operational capability. If an Australian competitor is among the top three finalists, that finalist would also be considered for funding under the Australian DOD’s Capability & Technology Demonstrator (CTD) Program.

Interested readers are strongly recommended to access a definitive document available on the DSTO web site www.dsto.defence.gov.au/ Magic 2010, that contains 17 guidelines for this project.

Comment.
A major thrust of the MAGIC program is that its objective is to be able to field “ multi-autonomous ground robots capable of independent operation in military operations”.  This requirement is fairly certainly the most difficult challenge to solve, technically and morally. To date US Congress has resolutely objected to a totally autonomous capability being invested in UMGVs, if they are fitted with weapons, ruling that a weapon-firing capability requires human control.

Background.

There are three broad classes of UMV used in the military environment; they are  Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV), Unmanned Ground Vehicles, (UMGV) and Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV). Each of these classes have significantly different objectives, technologies and methods of realisation, due to the different native environments in which they operate. Within each class there are many variants, particularly those operating in the ground environment. This diversification has lead in the past to significant duplication of effort by US  defense agencies and Industry. It has also resulted in slower deliveries than required by forces in the field.

The US Department of Defense is almost certainly the only organisation that has been developing robotics for application to military vehicles used for ground, air and sub-surface applications for more than 20 years.  The majority of these programs appear to have been originally developed independently by each service with little consideration of vehicle and technology commonality, leaving Congress to act as a watchdog of them.

Today, the technology “envelope” is being stretched to cover an increasingly large range of ground vehicle requirements from 4-5 ton tracked and wheeled vehicles to very small hand-launched unmanned surveillance aircraft to provide surveillance in urban warfare. The application and environmental diversity of UMGVs precludes significant commonality, except where human control is effected.

Legacy Programs
An excellent example of proliferation is an old program initiated by DARPA and Martin Marietta during the period 1984-1988 called the Autonomous Land Vehicle (ALV), The ALV was a national test bed for industry and university development in artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced computer architecture using the latest technology of the late 1980's. It was a self-contained rolling laboratory capable of being operated independent of human control. The ALV achieved an autonomous off-road capability of 3 km/h on a 0.6 km course, negotiating tough terrain and avoiding rocks and trees. By 1989, there were six unmanned ground vehicle systems under development in the Department of Defense using ALV technology. They were:
  • Minefield Reconnaissance and Detector System (MIRADOR)
  • Remotely Controlled Reconnaissance Monitor (RECORM)
  • Robotic Obstacle Breaching Assault Tank (ROBAT), using a remote M60 chassis with rollers
  • Robotic Security Sensor System (ROS3)
  • Robotics Ordnance Neutralizing Device (ROND)
  • Universal Self-Deployable Cargo Handler (USDCH)

Only one system, the RECORM, had an approved requirements document. Three programs had approved Organizational and Operational (O&O) Plans while the others were in draft.
In addition to the above identified systems and under the heading of Technology Demonstrators, there were twelve programs. They were:
  • US Air Force Engineering Services Center, Rapid Runway Repair (RRR) System
  • US Navy Ocean Systems Center, and Ground Air Tele-Robotic Systems (GATERS) which spawned the Teleoperated Vehicle (TOV).
  • US Army Tank-Automotive Command's evaluation of the German Armored Weapons Carrier (Weisel) program, and Robotic Command Center
  • US Army Missile Command, Teleoperated Mobile All-Purpose Platform (TMAP)
  • US Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, Advanced Howitzer Integrated Technology (AHIT)
  • US Army Human Engineering Laboratory, Field Material Handling Robot Technology (FMR-T), Multi-Vehicle Robotic Firing Platoon, Soldier Robot Interface Program (SRIP), and Tech Base Enhancement of Autonomous Machines (TEAM)

The TOV program is believed to be the oldest of the above programs, beginning in 1980, under the then US Navy Ocean Systems Center, later to become DARPA.  The TOV was a teleoperated (human remotely operated) HMMWV. The system comprised three modules: a mobility module to enable remote driving, a surveillance module to conduct reconnaissance, and a weapons module for weapon control. In September 1989, the Hellfire missile was fired remotely from the TOV at Camp Pendleton, CA. This program spun-off into variants such as the Teleoperated Mobile Anti-Armor Platform (TMAP) that was developed by Martin Marietta and Grumman in 1987-1988 in support of investigations of using robotics to launch an anti-armor weapon system. TMAP was controlled by a joystick via fiber optic cable with the operator using a TV image to navigate it.

However, in December 1987, Congress applied the brakes on proliferation of weapon carrying robots by mandating that US armed forces would not put weapons on them. This caused the development of TMAP to be renamed Teleoperated Mobile All-Purpose Platform (TMAP) and given a reconnaissance role, but TMAP was used in a later demonstration of the TOV.
Despite Congress concerns there were twenty-two programs running, prior to 1989, under the heading of support technologies involving the development of parts or sub-components that would enhance or aid robotic efforts.   These covered: manipulators, control units, reasoning, planning, analysis tools, communications, laser navigation, emulation, video imaging, stereoscopic displays, and simulations, with much of this development being undertaken by US Industry  

Enter Director Defense Research & Engineering (DDR&E)
Confronted with the above situation, DDR&E was established through the Department of Defense Reorganization Act. In effect DDR&E is the “Chief Technology Officer” for the Department of Defense. The following paragraphs are a simple overview of some of its organizations.

DDR&E brought together eight discretely responsible organizations, amongst which the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the central R&D organization and the manager and director of selected basic and applied research and development projects for the US DOD. DARPA will be familiar to readers associated with the Australian DOD. Three other DDR&E organizations, International Technology Security (ITS), Advanced Systems &Concepts (AS&C) and Science &Technology (S&T) are concerned with analyzing national and international evaluations of technology developments, including Australia.

Recognising the importance of the contribution robots would make to the guerrilla-warfare battlefield, the US DOD has progressively revised the organizations within DDR&E concerned with the development, production and fielding of UAVs, much of it caused by the involvement of Congress.

In July ‘03 the Robotics Systems Joint Project Office (RSJPO) was established, being spun off from the earlier Unmanned Ground Vehicle Systems Joint Project Office. The focal areas of the RSJPO are:
 Vehicle Teleoperation (VT), Common Robotics Systems (CRS) for a family of Common Robotics Kits (CRK) for a number of Army and Marine systems and Man-Portable Systems (UGVS), the latter to be single soldier portable.

In  February ’05 the long-standing Advanced Concept Technology Development organisation (with an annual budget of USD35m)  was changed to the Joint Concept Technology Development (JCTD) organisation, with significantly expanded terms of reference concerning its interaction with Industry, following the recognition that field forces were not being adequately supplied with robotic systems. JCTD is part of Advanced Systems & Concepts, itself part of the Office of the Defence Research & Engineering Directorate, noted above. 

It is considered likely that DSTO and companies selected for the development of MAGIC will become closely involved with DDR&E. 

Future development.

During the past 5-8 years there has been a marked growth in the development of battlefield capable UMGVs, for surveillance, penetration and own force protection.  This has been brought about by experience gained in Bosnia, Iraq and  in Afghanistan where land guerilla warfare replaced conventional “set piece” massed attacks of heavy armour and superior air defence.

Recognising the change in the nature of present warfare the US Army is working towards an amalgamated force comprising manned and autonomous unmanned vehicle systems that would operate collectively as an integrated fighting force.

The goal is not simply to replace people with machines, but to augment people with robots to create a more capable, agile, and cost-effective force that lowers the risk of U.S. casualties
At the opposite end of the robotics spectrum there is also growth in very small short range and short duration battlefield air vehicles. Some of these are hand-launched and “thrown over the wall” for urban surveillance and reporting and in the future may include fully autonomous air vehicles capable of operating in a building and reporting its status.

Defense Secretary Gates speaks.

On 23 June 2009 Defense Secretary Gates issued an Acquisition Decision Memorandum that advised that the portion of the Future Combat System (FCS) program to field new manned combat vehicles did not adequately reflect the lessons learned in  counter-insurgency and close quarters combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates also expressed his concern about the terms of the current single contract covering the whole of the FCS program. (Boeing is the present contractor).

The Memorandum cancelled the FCS Brigade Combat Team (BCT) and in its place  directed the Army to restructure it into a modernisation program consisting of a number of integrated but separate acquisition programs. The integrated acquisition programs include the initial increment of the FCS program and additional programs for information and communications networks and unmanned ground and air vehicles and sensors to be applied to all Army Brigades.

Manned vehicle programs of the previous FCS program have also been terminated pending an assessment with the Marine Corps of joint capability gaps. New requirements produced by the assessment will lead to the launch of a new acquisition program in 2010.

Implementation of the new BCT modernization strategy “will yield a versatile mix of BCT’s that will leverage mobility, protection, information and precision fires to conduct effective operations across the spectrum of conflict” said Lt.Gen. Michael Vane, Director Army Capabilities Integration Center.

It would appear possible that the impact of this decision may affect the start-up and direction of MAGIC.

US Industry Involvement
The role of US Industry in the development and production of UAVs for all applications is a story in itself, particularly in earlier days when each service controlled its own projects.The advent of DDR&E has introduced better management of the development of robotic vehicles in response to expanded service requirements. Additionally, the advent of the JTCD program has sponsored improved relationships with Industry to reduce start-up efforts and improve delivery to the field.

Early UMGVs were built around modified existing tracked or wheeled vehicles, designed for human operations and this status naturally attracted industries producing them to robotics programs.
Similarly, the technologies involved companies whose business was in robotic systems used in manufacturing and warehousing (e.g. electronics, manipulators,  video and radio frequency sensors, artificial intelligence and man-machine interfaces). So the industrial mix for UMGVs comprises larger companies such as General Dynamics Robotic Systems (GDRS), Oshkosh Defense and Northrop Grumman all of whom have the capacity to be a prime developer and producer supported by a large “raft” of specialty subcontractors, with oversight by DARPA.
A few recent and notable contracts are:

In 2004 GDRS was awarded a contract for the development of a Tactical Autonomous Combat Chassis (TAC-C) that will be capable of integrating autonomous mobility capabilities on robotic vehicles that are also optionally man-drivable. Vehicle variants include assault, troop transport, emergency, Command & Control, UAV Transport, and launcher capabilities. 

In 2009 Oshkosh Defense was awarded a 3-year cooperative Research & Development Agreement with the US Army’s Tank and Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center to refine technology associated with the operation of UGMVs in a convoy and a warfare environment, referred to as Convoy Active Safety Technology (CAST). Oshkosh is a major designer and manufacturer of heavy duty military transport vehicles, with sales in Australia, and the Oshkosh Terramax UMGV was the chosen target vehicle. The objective is to have a convoy, with a manned, lead vehicle that can safely navigate in a counter-insurgency and close quarters combat environment and provide navigation and other data to a following unmanned vehicle. Presumably this work will lead to a capability to lead a number of following vehicles as a ”train” .

These two programs are consistent with a US Department of Defense mandate that one-third of military vehicles will be capable of autonomous operation by 2015.
Apart from robotic vehicles involved in land warfare, there are many other applications for them that can reduce the deployment of human resources.  These applications include mine detection and mine clearance, remote long range scene surveillance that might cover route and hostile force surveillance and short range scene surveillance, the latter including urban surveillance. The application of robotic land vehicles would appear to be limited only by human inventiveness in their application and the above applications are likely to account for a considerable percentage of the US DoD’s statement above, rather than robotic systems to support hostile engagements.      

Elsewhere  

Outside the USA, almost every country that has the technical capacity and the budget is involved in the development of unmanned vehicles (UMV) for one or more applications. Some countries proceed independently and others cooperate.

Elbit, an Israeli company, is a notable designer and producer of a wide range of military robotics systems. Another company Northrop Grumann Remotec, operating in UK, designs and manufactures a range of UMGVs for bomb disposal, security control and surveillance for the military and civil markets. The  Remotec “Cutlass” and “Wheelbarrow”, the latter being in service in Afghanistan, are notable examples.

A quick overview  of UMGV technology

Platform

The DARPA Grand Challenge has shown that a major investment in automotive  engineering design is vital to the mobility of the UMGV in a diverse, hostile and destructive environment. Issues to be considered are chassis robustness with low mass, in particular long travel vehicle suspension to provide stability under all defined conditions, four, six or eight wheel drive, probably using an individually controllable electric drive motor at each wheel. An extremely high reliability engine is required that is capable of continuous running at its highest rated output, to idle for long periods without overheating, to be very economical and have a multi-fuel capability. A common rail diesel-electric engine combination is considered to be the most likely candidate. Low levels of acoustic and thermal radiation are likely to be important.  Resistance to small arms fire and possibly rocket attacks may be required.

Platform control systems.

Control of the vehicle will require a complex, interactive, all-electric, redundant control system. Controls will be required for direction, speed, braking, suspension compliance and stationary operations. Feedback that reports response status continuously will be essential. An attitude reference system that continuously reports the vehicle attitude allowing all the platform control systems to operate synchronously to maintain the vehicle in an upright attitude also will be essential.

Sensor systems

The sensor system suite will need to be role configurable as a function of the vehicle’s role and its mission. For vehicle control alone GPS for accurate navigation, EO Sensors, both IR and daylight TV for navigation and control are requirements and these may also be used for surveillance threat detection and threat evaluation. Laser range finding is a highly likely inclusion for weapon engagement.

Vehicle operating systems

It is envisaged that almost all UMGVs will be able to operate autonomously and also under remote operator control, on a vehicle capability and mission basis. A desirable feature will be the capability for a human to drive the vehicle on a “plug and play” basis inside the vehicle.  It is envisaged that vehicle electronics will be designed on a multiple, distributed subsystem, basis, with interconnection within each subsystem provided, using LANs, connected to a subsystem processor for each discretely controlled capability. Subsystems might be platform management, sensor management and remote/local vehicle control management. Subsystems’ processors will be interconnected and connected to the external communications sub-system.  Subsystem redundancy and real-time BITE of vital functions will be essential, as will be fail-safe operation.

Vehicle Remote Control

In the case of human remote control, vehicles will be connected using a high data rate, encoded radio frequency link unique to each vehicle, although such a link has a number of frailties. Human remote control is perhaps the most complex of the UMGV design because it needs to be achieved in real time for completely effective control. Unfortunately, all radio control systems of this type exhibit system latency in the order of 20mS for each path but in the case of an operator in the loop, the control loop involves 2-way communications, transmission of vehicle data to the operator, analysis of the displayed vehicle data by the operator and command outputs from the operator to the vehicle. There is also a time delay whilst the vehicle implements the operator commands. It is therefore probable that the total system latency is in the order of 80-100mS, assuming immediate action, or anticipation, by the operator. Delays of this order are likely to be unacceptable whilst the vehicle is moving at speed and this will lead to certain features having an autonomous capability. 

This problem may be ameliorated, by pre-planning of a route using AI-developed “maps”, using airborne and land derived geospatial intelligence that are loaded into the vehicle before a mission. These maps will embed route conditions, route video and anticipated threat scenarios and will be used by the vehicle in real time to compare what it is actually experiencing versus the planned route. The technique of navigating an air–launched guided missile using stored video, radar and laser targeting data and comparing it in the missile with data from its own sensors is a proven capability.
An alternative to individual control of UMGVs is to have a master/slave set up where the master is a manned vehicle and the slave(s) is/are unmanned. This arrangement places the operator right in the “playing field” and imposes a risk.

Countermeasures

Despite their attractiveness it would be naïive to believe that countermeasures to robotic vehicle operations will not be developed.  These may take the form of traps in the ground and physical barriers on which the vehicles may be impaled that have been used ever since tanks and armoured vehicles were fielded. There is also a newer threat to the operation of robotic vehicles and that is the use of radio frequency countermeasures, perhaps using airborne-source spread spectrum barrage jamming, as RF transmissions for both vehicle control and vehicle-acquired sensor data  are the sole mode of flexible communications between operators and vehicles if the two are some distance apart, irrespective of the use of direct and UAV-relayed transmissions. Noting also that a UAV radio relay will mitigate the effects of signal fades due to terrain. At short ranges between the operator and the vehicle(s) he controls there is the possibility of intercommunications using jam-free fibre-optic cables. Because of this problem it would appear that the distance between a robotic vehicle and a vehicle controller for control and data is always likely to be fairly small.  

UMGV Growth statistics.
The market for UMGVs of all types in use by the US Army was:
2004:  162 (in Iraq  and Afghanistan, believed to be actual )
2007:      5000 total (estimate in all locations)
2008:   6000 total (as above)    

Conclusions.

The joint US/Australian MAGIC program, with Australia taking a significant part in it through DSTO and possibly Australian Industry through the CTD program, may provide a valuable introduction and knowledge base to Australia in UMGV technology if the Defence plan is to foster and develop UMGV technologies and production for the ADF. 

The funds allocated will simply not scratch the surface of this program, when one considers that a fully loaded engineer’s rate is around AUD 140K p.a. or more depending on grade. The limited funding is likely to engender lack of interest in the program.

An evaluation of the breadth and depth of the US defense programs for robotics vehicles, compared with Australia’s minimal knowledge base in such systems, would indicate that it may not be money well spent by Australia when all factors are considered, to “reinvent” the wheel. Questionable is whether Australia has some expertise that the US does not have.

A major question to be answered is the determination of the effectiveness of UMGVs in diverse operating conditions, particularly their use against an intelligent, experienced, hostile, well-defended, highly mobile force. UMGVs are not well adapted to operate and survive in an environment where IEDs, man made trenches and physical countermeasures, such as “tank traps” are prevalent, let alone reliable operation in physically rough terrain, such as in Afghanistan, but not Iraq. In the end successful operation of UMGVs may involve manned airborne control that provides continuous wide area surveillance of the selected battlefield and flexible asset control.

MAGIC is considered likely to be “long haul” program with significant cross-roads and directions to be negotiated in nature and their cost in the future. In the end MAGIC may not be completely dissimilar in outcome to the joint US/Australia PA10 EW program, the real benefits of which to Australia Industry and the ADF are yet to be demonstrated, and are an expensive lesson in the making.

 

APDR at a glance