As militaries around the world test and deploy new autonomous vehicles, commercial enterprises are developing innovative solutions which could change the battlefield in both big and small ways.
In late 2022, BAE Systems Australia supplied two fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) for a ‘battlefield simulation’ demonstration for the Australian Army. This is just one more milestone in a long stretch of such announcements, including one in late 2021 that the Australian Department of Defence had completed overseeing the Army’s autonomous truck technology a series of road trials. This project aims to develop a fleet of AVs using ‘leader-follower vehicle’ technology.
In parallel, the Australian Road Research Board is partnering with the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) of Deakin University in a related project. The aim is to design and build what the military calls “an autonomous leader-follower convoy”, with advanced obstacle avoidance. A multi-vehicle convoy is now being developed and tested at multiple locations. One important place where testing occurs is at the RAAF Point Cook base in Melbourne’s west.
Deploying AVs has been a major goal of both the civil and military sectors for many years. One US-based specialist, Bryan Clark, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, has stated that despite this demand, AVs “have failed to reach maturity due to the inherent complexity of passenger driving conditions, which span everything from well-defined highways to chaotic urban streets and unmarked country roads”. However, as Clark points out, “driver assist technologies have made dramatic improvements in vehicle safety, essentially breaking down the automated driving mission into a set of discrete tasks that are assigned to the vehicle or the driver depending on who is best suited”.
Clark’s argument is that “managing speed, direction, and lane alignment are tasks automation does well. Making decisions on whether to leave a standing stop or turn are often best left to the driver, as some well-publicised accidents showed over the last several years.”
US-based Robotic Research Corp. (RRAI) provides proprietary ‘leader-follower’ systems to defence sector customers. A growing number of commercial programs in which they are involved include ‘leader follower’ technologies and ‘automated convoy’ technologies. Their customers are doing truck convoying for logging and resource roads, for express bus/shuttle platooning, and for various other controlled environment use cases.
Senior DoD officials, and others, are focused on procuring ‘human-in-the-loop’ and leader-follower type automation systems. Presently, development and evolution of commercial truck automation is proceeding rapidly, due in part to the infusion of massive venture-capital financing over the past six years. This work in the private sector has focused on advancing the technologies which enable what these companies call ‘automated following solutions’, ‘leader-follower solutions’ and ‘connected vehicles’.
DoD and allied governments, both inside and outside NATO, are ramping up support for human-in-the-loop automation systems. They recognise the ongoing importance of human-led systems, even as individual automated vehicles are developed for some specific use-cases.
ndustry publications and other media reports (see articles below) indicate that top brass see key importance of moving forward with deployment of human-in-the-loop, leader-follower automation in order to bring automation more rapidly to key parts of military operations – including military supply convoys as well as various types of combat convoy applications. Expanded deployment of automated convoy/leader-follower capable vehicles can also be complementary to the longer process of developing automated individual vehicles/trucks that can operate on their own in various types of environments.
Trucking is an AV use case that allows more of the tasks involved with driving to be shifted to the vehicle. Shipping depots and distribution centres generally have well-defined traffic patterns and are close to major highways with minimal complex city traffic in between. As a result, human operators can offload nearly all the tasks involved in driving to the vehicle’s control system and focus on supervising.
Grappling with Transition Problems
The US Army has been aggressively studying military vehicle convoys. Clark notes that, unlike their civilian counterparts, such convoys “may have to go anywhere, preventing automation from relying on known routes, road markings, and traffic rules. They also often must travel through areas lacking a formal road network. The US military has been addressing this using automation technology that allows a lead vehicle operated by drivers to guide automated vehicles along the route”.
This reduces the number of human drivers needed and reduces the risk to soldiers. To allow communications between vehicles that may be separated by obstructions like buildings or terrain, Clark points out that “the Army is using drones as communication relays. In many of these experiments, automation in the lead vehicle allows the human driver to focus mostly on decisions regarding where to go, while the truck manages the tasks of avoiding obstacles and proposing routes using Google Maps-like decision aids.”
According to Sagie Evbenata, Senior Research Analyst at Guidehouse Corp., “the ongoing mobility transition toward automated, autonomous, and zero-emission vehicles is transforming how the global commercial and defence communities move people and goods—the traditional boundaries of how vehicles are fuelled, stored, and utilised are being redefined”. Furthermore, a changing climate and an increase in extreme weather conditions are creating an urgent need for companies and militaries to adapt mission capabilities to incorporate resilient equipment and installations.
On the defence side, local commanders will need to assess the impact of incorporating these new vehicle capabilities and needs into their daily operations. Evbenata noted that “these vehicles will require updates to existing infrastructure and operating procedures, specifically in the areas of fleets (types of vehicles), fuels (including electricity), and facilities (such as alternative fuelling infrastructure). These updates will also be critical to enabling new vehicles to achieve their mission while creating a more resilient infrastructure network.”
To maintain a leading and modern army composed of human-machine teams, the British Army adopted their ‘Robotics and Autonomous Systems’ approach to adopting emerging military technologies. Evbenata state that “a key objective is the minimisation of risk to human life by the increased deployment of automated air and ground systems. As a result, the Army is involved in a number of research projects to assess and develop automated technologies with military potential”.
Evbenata cites one example of this: Project Theseus, which “looks to identify self-driving ground and air technologies to provide last-mile deliveries of military supplies such as ammunition, food, and other critical items to the battlefield”. As part of this, the British Army has been developing and evaluating Uncrewed Ground Vehicles capable of transporting cargo over off-road terrain in high-risk environments. He points out that “the Army has partnered with Rheinmetall to retrofit AI-powered automation systems to some of its fleet of Polaris MRZR-D4 light strike and reconnaissance all-terrain vehicles”.
Furthermore, the British Army has been testing Multi-Utility Tactical Transport (MUTT) Robotic Platoon Vehicles that, in addition to transporting infantry equipment, provide intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance. MUTTs can be configured to travel semi-autonomously or by remote operation.
Evbenata concludes that, “with the growth of automated military vehicles, the need for secure communications infrastructure becomes increasingly important”. At the centre of the action are communications technologies – such as mobile ad-hoc networked datalinks and the ‘Internet of Battlefield Things’ – “to connect army personnel and smart equipment with a reliable network”, which is vital in combat zones.
Commercial Support for Military Operations
Automated commercial vehicles also have the potential to support military operations. Civilian truck operators can benefit from operational cost savings, and the ability to economically continue operations as labour shortages become more pronounced. Presently, automated trucks are being deployed in several pilot projects in Europe, North America, and Asia. Guidehouse Insights anticipates that 1.2 million automated trucks will be in commercial deployments worldwide by 2032.
To get the military’s perspective, we consulted with Maj Gen S Hutchings OBE, Master General of Logistics with The UK’s Royal Logistic Corps. He stated that “the British Army is committed to enhancing its operational logistic capability through the use of Robotic Autonomous Systems (RAS)”. In this he includes optionally crewed leader-follower capable large goods vehicles to enable logistics personnel to increase delivery throughput.
Hutchings argues for “operational advantage in enabling greater endurance at increasingly longer distances with greater volumes of materiel, enhancing operational effectiveness. The RAS ambition also includes smaller autonomous systems, such as drones, which can be optimised to undertake the last-mile logistic tasks, for example distributing blood product and critical spares”.
Hutchings concluded that “all of these require integration of sensors to enable data capture and usage at a standard and volume that has yet to occur on the battlefield”. However, Hutchings is aware that the logistics liability for operating these systems must be understood: “Maintaining a resilient supply chain for autonomous systems will be essential as will the ever-closer integration of our industry partners. It is also clear that a conversation about how skills may be transferred into the military workforce if needed in a crisis must be had, else we will fail to ensure that autonomous systems can be sustained and repaired in a conflict zone.”
A veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom with insights here is Michael P. Noonan, PhD, Senior Fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He argues that, “as technologies mature, the automation of trucks is of importance to both civilian industry and the military. While some of the uses of this technology would overlap—increasing the safe delivery of supplies and materiel over extended distances—there would also be large differences in their uses. Neither civilians nor the military would completely drive the innovation and diffusion of technological advances in this space.”
Noonan wants us to not think about any automation of supply trucks as simply replacing humans with unmanned systems: “This process, particularly in military settings, would almost certainly be the pairing of man and machine to swiftly, accurately, and safely deliver supplies across territory where movement might be impeded or harassed by enemy forces, criminal elements, or displaced persons. The ability of crew to operate the vehicles as necessary, defend and protect the vehicle convoys, and perform necessary maintenance will be essential. One could also think about scenarios where a human-operated system could control other vehicles remotely.”
Going Beyond R&D
Automating military trucks has been a is not simply a matter of pure research and development or science fiction conjecture. In 2011, for instance, the Army deployed the Squad Mission Support System vehicle, also known as the Ox, to Afghanistan battlefields. Noonan saw that “these remote-operated vehicles were able to carry out missions such as delivering ammunition to special operations forces in harm’s way or construction materials to units in rough terrain.”
Those who speculate about pure automation can readily imagine certain scenarios where that might be beneficial. Noonan’s view on this is straightforward: “One would be delivering supplies across particularly hostile territories where losses to artillery barrages or precision strike systems could reduce risks. Another would be delivering supplies across an area that was contaminated by nuclear, chemical, biological, or radiological hazards—although decontamination of the systems would still be necessary.”
As regards the path ahead for AVs, Boyd says that “there remains a long road to commercially profitable and scalable solo driverless automated vehicles. In the meantime, new generation Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems, leader-follower systems and other connected vehicle solutions can be commercially deployed more widely. And this process is well underway, despite overall macroeconomic headwinds. This type of human-in-the-loop solutions also is complementary to the longer process of developing commercially-viable individual driverless vehicles.”
Although some AV companies continue touting near-term commercial deployment plans, Boyd’s expectation is that it may take tens of billions of dollars in further investment for each major driverless AV company seeking to deploy complete systems. Furthermore, it will require a decade or more to see fully-driverless individual vehicles become commercially profitable and scalable on open roadways and in non-controlled environments.
There may be a reckoning underway in the market, one which could be especially harsh for AV companies that fail to develop significant interim revenue products or alternative long-term sources of capital. An extensive shakeout and consolidation of companies is now picking up steam, with several major companies faring badly. For those AV companies which are able to survive and adapt, partial automation products or related solutions can also be important stepping stones on the much longer road to profitable fully driverless systems.
Boyd argues that, “over recent years, many companies have begun to develop and deploy interim products that can be deployed nearer term – such as Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems (ADAS), safety systems and automation systems that enhance the safety of human drivers, systems that require extensive direct supervision by remote human operators, and automation systems only for use in highly controlled environments – such as truck/trailer yards, private mining/logging roads, controlled routes between warehouses, mining sites, construction sites and farm fields”.
Leaders at the US DoD and other military agencies see a long timeline to the full deployment of fully driverless vehicles. As Boyd notes, “they are focused on the practicality and safety of human-in-the-loop automation systems like vehicles with a mixture of Leader-Follower, ADAS and individual automated vehicle capabilities”. Boyd thinks that further deployments of these types of military systems, largely supported by OEMs and suppliers with affiliated commercial businesses, will complement the commercial development and deployment of similar solutions.
What lies ahead for defence organisations is a long and winding road leading to scalable solo driverless AVs. In the meantime, new-generation ADAS, leader-follower systems and other connected vehicle solutions can be deployed more widely, and this process is well underway.