U.S. Army Research Pushes into Autonomous Trucks, Weapons

October 05, 2016 by Deanna Isaacs

Many of the military’s most game-changing vehicular innovations come to life in a Detroit suburb at the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center.

The labs produce robotic tools for soldiers, armor enhancements, next-generation tanks and more. And it’s where Paul Rogers’ team plans to test the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2, a hydrogen fuel cell-powered pickup truck developed in tandem with General Motors Co. and unveiled this week.

Rogers, the director of the Army facility, recently sat down with Trucks.com to discuss technology that will improve mobility for soldiers in the field.

What are the most exciting technological advances on the horizon for military vehicles?

There are two things from a mobility perspective that I find exciting for military applications. One is an alternative powertrain that isn’t just dependent on hydrocarbon fuels, but may be able to extract the hydrogen from other sources, such as water. These advanced powertrains are very exciting in their potential. That’s why we’re doing this, to explore that potential.

The other thing is the autonomy. The Army has been looking at autonomous vehicles since the 1950s. We’ve had them in various forms. We have been doing the on-road experimentation for about 10 years now, so we believe we have that fairly well defined and we have transitioned to now focus on off-road autonomous driving and functionality.

What’s exciting to us is this emergence of the commercial interest in autonomy … all the way from Google to Tesla to the traditional automotive [manufacturers] and the over-the-road trucking.

What their investments in autonomy are helping to do is take all the specialized components required for autonomous operation and pulling the cost of those technologies way down. They’re also contributing to the body of knowledge from a safety, reliability and redundancy perspective.

Will autonomous driving applications be useful for the military?

Absolutely. We’ve been experimenting quite a bit over the last couple of decades. We’ve had autonomous convoys, we’ve had leader-follower where you have a manned/occupied vehicle with several other unmanned systems working in concert with it.

We’re also looking at tying autonomous ground vehicles with autonomous air vehicles for cooperative and collaborative navigation and situational awareness.

Autonomous capability is a key part of our strategy going forward. We’re working very aggressively across many different aspects, and a lot of our research and development right now is focused on what we call “unstructured,” or off-road, mobility.

For us, it’s an unstructured environment, where you don’t have lines and curves and transitions between pavement that you can read and see through machine vision. Some of the challenges inherent in off-road mobility or an unstructured environment are where we’re focusing our energy.

When will the Army have platooning trucks on the road, and what will the advantage be over traditional convoys?

So, the timeline is dependent on several factors. One is affordability. So, again, as the commercial market brings the cost of technologies down, it raises the probability of us accelerating the fielding of the robotic leader-follower capability.

What we’re following right now is very much shadowing what’s going on in the auto industry. We’re initially looking at adding advanced driver safety or driver assist capabilities into our vehicles, establishing the flexible architecture within our man-operated vehicle or soldier-operated vehicle systems, over time rolling out a kind of an apps-based approach for advanced capabilities and then adding through software upgrades and additive technologies the driverless functionality.

The advantages to the warfighter are many. One is that there are never enough soldiers on the battlefield for everything that you’re trying to do. The ability to augment a soldier with unmanned vehicles allows soldiers to multiply their ability to complete a mission, particularly in an environment where you have a resupply function or a logistical mission. You can have several manned vehicles, but with many more unmanned vehicles delivering goods and supplies to key points.

There’s an efficiency gained, there’s a throughput for logistics, and then there’s also the safety and force protection. Fewer soldiers that have to be exposed on the road to the threats that we’ve seen over the last 15 years, then the lesser the probability of a soldier being injured or wounded.

Do you foresee an era of autonomous tanks or autonomously driven armored personnel vehicles or troop carriers?

We can foresee a time when we have the trust and confidence in our autonomy solutions that we deploy them in different means than logistical resupply or augmenting soldiers with driving functions. I think that’s a much longer time frame.

We’re following an approach where we believe a soldier will always be in control of the weapon’s sights, but that doesn’t mean they have to be sitting there with their hands on it.

I think those kind of constructs are applicable for ground military vehicles. But again, we have to solve the mobility challenges first, second the command and control network and redundancy necessary, and then the onboard safety protocols that ensure that the platform is only operating the way we intend it to be operated — that we are always in positive control of that platform.

So we have some work to do, and that type of capability would come after autonomous ground resupply capability.

How much thought is the Army giving to a fossil fuel-free future?

We are always looking for new fuel sources, and we’re always concerned about our impact on the environment.

The demand we have on the support forces is driven by two large commodities: One is water, and the other is liquid fuel. All those convoys we were just talking about, a lot of those convoys are delivering fuel to the force. Looking at advanced powertrain solutions here that may be able to leverage other sources of hydrogen other than hydrocarbon fuels, that’s attractive to us.

We have a lot work to do to understand the business case and where it makes sense and when it makes sense and whether it’s affordable over time. But based on that work, we’re always looking to see where we can go and how we can lessen the demands. We’re looking for fuel efficiency technologies and other demand-reduction approaches.

We’re developing a conventional powertrain right now that offers a potential 25-percent fuel demand reduction for a greater horsepower output.

Why hydrogen fuel cell technology for the Chevrolet Colorado?

I think the power density, the energy density, in this package is right in the sweet spot of where the commercial market’s going. For us, this is a relevant military tactical vehicle for a subset of our tactical vehicles.

There was a lot of synergy between where [General Motors] was going and where we were going. We had them do some work on the design to enhance its off-road mobility so that it meets our expectations for a tactical vehicle, but I think there was a lot of overlap between where they were commercially and where we were interested as a first-look at this powertrain. We just took advantage of an opportunity.

What drew the Army, TARDEC and GM to fuel cell vehicles over other alternative energy vehicles?

About three years ago, we entered into a cooperative research agreement with General Motors and it was focused on testing fuel cell technologies. They have over the last couple of decades spent several billion dollars developing their technologies. GM was in the process of moving their its test site from New York to Michigan and in that move they had excess test equipment.

They approached us and asked if we’d be interested in integrating that into our labs. They would train our engineers and they would allow us to test their fuel cell technologies. In exchange, we would give them the data that we collected on it. It was a great win-win for both partners.

We’ve done that for a couple of years now and that really exposed us to the true potential of this and our understanding of how mature this technology really is and how applicable it is to some of our mission space. Based on that experience, we really saw it as an opportunity to take this commercial powertrain, put it into a vehicle that reflects our mobility expectations and go out and test it.

What’re your favorite functions of this technology in a military scenario?

There are three things that really jump out at me. No. 1 is the silent mobility. This affords the opportunity to have the first vehicle with true silent mobility with the off-road mobility characteristics that we’re looking for.

The second aspect is the torque from the electric propulsion. That gives accelerations that exceed what we do today. It gives some off-road mobility characteristics that are very positive.

Another aspect is the generation of water as a byproduct of fuel cells. Two of the largest logistical demands on the battlefield are liquid fuel and water. If you’re operating in an austere environment where you don’t have ready access to water, you have a means of offsetting your water demands for the soldiers using the systems.

If you have a vehicle like this with four occupants and you’re generating two gallons an hour of water, you could probably sustain yourself from a water perspective for quite some time.

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