Marines Train on Robotic Truck for Future Convoys

WASHINGTON, Aug. 18, 2011 — Next week, in a test area just east of Pitts­burgh, six Marines will learn to con­trol a robot­ic truck that may rep­re­sent the future for logis­tics con­voys, route-clear­ing mis­sions and oth­er high-risk bat­tle­field oper­a­tions.

TerraMax Unmanned Ground Vehicle technology
Oshkosh Defense pre­sent­ed its Ter­ra­Max Unmanned Ground Vehi­cle tech­nol­o­gy at the Asso­ci­a­tion for Unmanned Vehi­cle Sys­tems con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Aug. 18, 2011.
Oshkosh cour­tesy pho­to
Click to enlarge

Oshkosh Defense of Wis­con­sin devel­oped the Ter­ra­Max unmanned ground vehi­cle tech­nol­o­gy that’s inte­grat­ed into the company’s 6x6 medi­um tac­ti­cal vehi­cle replace­ment.

Oshkosh dis­played the robot­ics-enabled vehi­cle here this week at the Asso­ci­a­tion for Unmanned Vehi­cle Sys­tems Unmanned Sys­tems North Amer­i­ca 2011 con­fer­ence.

On the AUVSI exhi­bi­tion floor, amid the dis­plays of more than 500 unmanned sys­tems com­pa­nies, user agen­cies and orga­ni­za­tions, John Beck, Oshkosh Corp.‘s chief unmanned sys­tems engi­neer, spoke with Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice.

“Most of the ground vehi­cles that I know of in the­ater today are remote con­trolled — they take a human in the loop 100 per­cent of the time [to] mon­i­tor every motion,” Beck said, and to con­trol steer­ing, throt­tling, brak­ing and oth­er oper­a­tions.

In June, the com­pa­ny received a con­tract to pro­duce an unmanned car­go vehi­cle for a Marine Corps ini­tia­tive called the Car­go UGV, for the unmanned ground vehi­cle. The company’s spon­sor is the Marine Corps Warfight­ing Lab­o­ra­to­ry in Quan­ti­co, Va.

“The idea is to get this autonomous sys­tem into the­ater even­tu­al­ly for all sorts of dif­fer­ent rea­sons,” Beck said, “for con­voy logis­tics mis­sions, for route-clear­ance mis­sions and for some of the com­bat recon­nais­sance and patrol mis­sions.”

The goal of the Marine Corps pro­gram, he added, is to inte­grate unmanned sys­tems into manned con­voys, then to under­stand and devel­op con­cepts of oper­a­tions and tac­tics, tech­niques and pro­ce­dures for using autonomous vehi­cles on the bat­tle­field.

Oshkosh has expe­ri­ence in the­ater; the com­pa­ny builds all the heavy and medi­um tac­ti­cal vehi­cles and most of the mine-resis­tant, ambush pro­tect­ed vehi­cles – known as MRAPs — the Defense Depart­ment uses, Beck said.

The com­pa­ny has worked on autonomous sys­tems for medi­um and heavy tac­ti­cal vehi­cles since 2003, the chief engi­neer said, “because we saw this as an emerg­ing tech­nol­o­gy that we want­ed to par­tic­i­pate in.”

A year lat­er, Oshkosh entered the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Grand Chal­lenge, a dri­ver­less car com­pe­ti­tion held in the Mojave Desert in 2004.

“We made it about two miles or so,” Beck said. “Nobody fin­ished that one.”

The com­pa­ny entered anoth­er vehi­cle in the 2005 Grand Chal­lenge, a 6x6 MTVR like the Ter­ra­Max truck on dis­play at AUVSI, Beck said, and was one of the fin­ish­ers.

“At the time it was the small­est truck we built, but it was the largest one [entered in the DARPA chal­lenge] and the only tac­ti­cal­ly rel­e­vant vehi­cle in the com­pe­ti­tion.”

In 2007, DARPA held an urban chal­lenge and anoth­er Oshkosh MTVR, this time a 4x4, entered the com­pe­ti­tion.

“Those were inter­est­ing chal­lenges in that they were com­plete­ly unmanned and total­ly autonomous,” Beck said. “So we start­ed from there, and now are back-step­ping into how you would use [autonomous vehi­cles] in a tac­ti­cal envi­ron­ment and in real logis­tics mis­sions.”

The team works on chal­leng­ing prob­lems like help­ing the truck deal with big slopes and grades, but they also focus on the robot’s abil­i­ty to per­ceive and under­stand the envi­ron­ment.

The truck has to under­stand trees, rocks and roads and where it should be dri­ving. It has to be able to oper­ate in envi­ron­ments with lim­it­ed Glob­al Posi­tion­ing Sys­tem access.

“It’s not very dif­fi­cult to do those types of things in struc­tured envi­ron­ments like today’s high­ways with lane mark­ings and curbs and K-rail [bar­ri­ers],” Beck said. “But when you get into more aus­tere and prim­i­tive envi­ron­ments, it gets much more chal­leng­ing.”

See­ing through dust, rain and snow is anoth­er chal­lenge, the chief engi­neer said. For such things the truck has a range of sen­sors, includ­ing lidar, for light detec­tion and rang­ing, elec­tro-opti­cal sen­sors, auto­mo­tive radars, near-infrared cam­eras and many oth­ers.

“With­out per­cep­tion,” Beck said, “your auton­o­my can fall apart pret­ty quick­ly.”

Oshkosh recent­ly com­plet­ed its first lim­it­ed tech­ni­cal assess­ment for Ter­ra­Max, he added, “which got us through all kinds of lit­tle wick­ets — obsta­cle avoid­ance, oper­at­ing in dust and deal­ing with grad­ed slopes and veg­e­ta­tion.”

Next week in Penn­syl­va­nia, Beck said, the team will teach Marines how to use the truck’s oper­a­tor con­trol unit and rotate them through the com­mand-and-con­trol and oth­er vehi­cles.

The Marines, he said, will define mis­sions for the unmanned sys­tem, mon­i­tor its progress, help it out if it needs guid­ance and super­vise the autonomous oper­a­tion of a mis­sion.

“Part of the sec­ond phase of the pro­gram will be to have two unmanned trucks oper­at­ed from one oper­a­tor con­trol unit,” Beck said. “One oper­a­tor in a manned vehi­cle some­where with­in the col­umn can mon­i­tor the progress of two autonomous vehi­cles. If they get into trou­ble the oper­a­tor can help reroute them.”

Even­tu­al­ly, Beck said, he thinks it will be pos­si­ble for trucks to oper­ate autonomous­ly in places like Afghanistan where infra­struc­ture is lim­it­ed.

“There are plen­ty of hard prob­lems to deal with, where you get into unstruc­tured and dynam­ic envi­ron­ments,” the chief engi­neer said. “All sorts of ques­tions need to be answered as to how you want the vehi­cle to oper­ate.”

A dri­ver might not stop at every stop sign or obey all the traf­fic rules in a hos­tile envi­ron­ment, Beck added. “Mak­ing the robot intel­li­gent enough to make those types of deci­sions is a lit­tle ways out,” he said.

Asym­met­ric war­fare dri­ves the need for vehi­cles that are increas­ing­ly autonomous, Beck said, adding that the first vehi­cles might be autonomous but have a dri­ver behind the wheel who can focus on oth­er things besides dri­ving the truck, like look­ing out for road­side bombs.

“They’ll prob­a­bly start out with lim­it­ed, proven amounts of tech­nol­o­gy and active safe­ty, … like adap­tive cruise con­trol, and those capa­bil­i­ties will start rolling into and enabling autonomous oper­a­tion,” the chief sci­en­tist said.

“As the capa­bil­i­ties get bet­ter and the envi­ron­ment is under­stood enough so you can run these [trucks] with­out peo­ple in the cab, that’s what will hap­pen, espe­cial­ly in very high-risk areas,” he added.

“I think that’s when they’ll start run­ning vehi­cles autonomous­ly,” Beck said, “because it’s less of a risk to human life.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

More news and arti­cles can be found on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Fol­low on Face­book and/or on Twit­ter