Monday, August 20, 2012

USMC Checks Out Robotic Trucks

August 18, 2012: After more than eight years of effort, Oshkosh Truck company, electronics manufacturer Rockwell Collins, and artificial intelligence experts from the University of Parma, Italy have produced a UGV (unmanned ground vehicle), called TerraMax, that works well enough for military use. Making this happen has not been easy. For example, seven years ago this vehicle was able to consistently move over cross-country routes at 31 kilometers an hour (and sometimes as fast as 56 kilometers an hour). That seemed great, but it was later discovered that the vehicle was not ready for prime time.
TerraMax has sensors and an onboard computer that monitors the pitch and roll of the vehicle, as well as how close it is to the edge of the road, or any obstacles, and adjusts steering and speed accordingly. Back then TerraMax sometimes moved so fast at times that the SUV chase car could not keep up. In addition to having no driver, TerraMax has a better suspension system for dealing with rough (off-road) terrain.

The TerraMax developers found that getting a truck to travel as a UGV was the easy part. It got difficult when you encountered things like debris blowing across the road. Once TerraMax was slowed and almost went off the road, when some tumbleweed blew in front. The AI promptly had the truck try to avoid this "obstacle" and that caused some vehicle control problems. There were also problems with sensor unreliability. It was quickly realized that the sensors and AI had to be at least as reliable as the average human driver (the military had stats on that). It took years to fix the reliability and perception (as in knowing what tumbleweed or newspapers blowing in front of the vehicle is) problems.

The current TerraMax vehicle is basically a six wheeled Oshkosh Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement (MTVR) and weighs over 14 tons. MTVR is a military cargo truck, and the U.S. Marine Corps has been testing the improved TerraMax for use as an unmanned truck. This would reduce the number of personnel needed in a combat zone and reduce the risk to troops operating on highly dangerous roads.

It would appear that, before the end of the decade, there will be robotic vehicles, probably operating in convoys led by a vehicle with a human in it, and perhaps another such vehicle at the rear. But the rest of the vehicles could be autonomous (operating using their own computers and sensors) UGVs. Some of these vehicles could have remotely controlled gun turrets, with the operators back at some base, ready to go into action. A few human gun turret operators could be on duty for several convoys. The U.S. has already developed predictive analysis systems that determine the probability of attacks on convoys and more gun turret operators could be on call, since anyone who has played video games can quickly learn how to operate one of these turrets.

In addition to the autonomous UGVs there are also remotely operated UGVs. These are usually combat vehicles, going into very dangerous areas. These have been useful and are in demand.



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