Driverless cars and delivery drones are already in an advanced stage of development, so it’s no surprise that similar technology is being developed for battlefield use.
The US Army has awarded a contract to Oshkosh to convert their trucks for automated operation.
Oshkosh’s PLS is the US Army’s main ammunition supply truck, a rugged 10x10 vehicle which can haul a 16-ton container with a built-in arm to load or unload at the touch of a button. The autonomy kit allows the PLS to drive itself.
The US Army plans to run convoys with just one or two human drivers and several unmanned vehicles, so the same number of drivers can shift far more cargo.
In the UK, the Defence Science Technology Laboratory (DSTL) wants robots to bring ammunition, food and other supplies right up to the front line, in a program called Autonomous Last Mile Resupply.
After a selection process involving 142 original proposals, the DSTL has now awarded contracts to five competing teams for unmanned systems.
These aim to carry out the resupply process automatically, navigating, plotting their own route and dropping off a payload without human help.
Some of the teams are working on small drones, like a military version of Amazon’s Prime Air. The heavy lifting will require ground vehicles though, the two contenders being the tracked TITAN developed by QinetiQ and Milrem, and the wheeled Viking from HORIBA MIRA.
The Viking is a two-ton, 6x6 robot with a top speed of 40 kph, able to deliver a load of 600 kilos 200 kilometres.
Payloads are likely to be in the form of NATO standard pallets which measure 120x100 cm.
Both platforms have a long pedigree and reflect years of development, and the competition will be less a matter of hardware than software.
The winner is likely to be determined by how well sensors and artificial intelligence can work out how to get around obstacles and find their way without getting stuck or lost. Ease of use is also likely to be a factor.
The task is not as simple as that faced by Google or Uber’s driverless cars; off-road operation is more challenging than a vehicle guiding itself on a well-defined asphalt road with signs and markings.
Other challenges include navigation when GPS is not available and communications with limited radio bandwidth. A remote operator has to be able to track and monitor the robot, and if necessary intervene to change its course at any time.
Both of the ground vehicles are highly modular and can be configured for a variety of roles from mine detection to casualty evacuation.
If they prove themselves in the resupply task their duties are likely to be extended.
The Autonomous Last Mile Resupply includes a hands-on element in the ‘Autonomous Warrior’ exercise on Salisbury Plain on November, when troops from 1 Armoured Infantry Brigade will put the robots through their paces.
At the conclusion of the selection process, there will be further trials and evaluations.
These may be followed by equipment purchases, if the technology proves robust enough. And, eventually, summoning a resupply robot to wherever you are may be simply a matter of clicking on an app.