The U.S. Army plans to deploy dozens of autonomous trucks next year, far ahead of its original time frame.
It believes the high-tech vehicles will provide an advantage in ground warfare where driverless trucks could free up soldiers for other tasks. That could include providing security for the robotic trucks themselves.
“It takes three soldiers to support and resupply every soldier that’s in a fighting role,” Paul Rogers, director of the Tank Army Research Development Engineering Center, told Trucks.com. “Anything we can do to help lessen that is an efficiency gain.”
The Army decided its work with autonomous trucks was far enough along to have soldiers test them in mission conditions. The original plan was to put 300 autonomous trucks into service in 2025. To bring the program forward, the Army pared its original list of 45 requirements for autonomous vehicles to 15 must-haves.
“We need to get after unmanned logistics,” said Robert Sadowski, the Army’s chief roboticist.
The Army started with advanced safety system technologies, including automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane centering. TARDEC worked with industry and research partners including Carnegie Mellon University to develop autonomous software for the trucks, which come from multiple manufacturers. It has tested a form of truck platooning called “Leader-Follower,” which spaces vehicles 50 to 100 meters apart to protect cargo loads from road hazards such as dust storms and combat dangers like roadside bombs.
The military is pushing ahead with autonomous vehicle development at the same time the civilian trucking industry is adopting similar technology. Commercial truck firms, for example, are testing a different type of platooning where digitally tethered trucks of three or more follow each other closely, typically 40 feet. Digital communications and automatic emergency braking reduce wind drag and improve fuel efficiency.
The Army will get some fuel savings, Sadowski said, but it is focused on creating advantages in warfare, such as being able to operate autonomously in mud bogs and deserts.
“The rules of engagement change constantly,” said Bernard Theisen, a robotics program manager at TARDEC. “Every truck is autonomous, but we program hundreds of routes that keep the human in the mix.”
The first 60 trucks go to Fort Polk, La., and Fort Sill, Okla., because the trucks have the same cargo loading system used at those bases. The Army racked up 50,000 miles of autonomous leader-follower practice in an earlier version of the trucks last year. Those trucks each had a human driver in case something went wrong. The Army could string together as many as seven trucks. But it wants feedback from soldiers to make software fixes before more trucks are released.
“The current system meets “about 95 percent” of the requirements the Army established, Sadowski said. “Out in the real world, you never get your software right the first time.”
Software in development would allow the trucks to reverse in case of a threat like an explosive in the road.
Making sure the system is safe for soldiers and resists computer hacking are ongoing challenges.
“We’re trying to bake our cybersecurity in as we develop,” Sadowski said. “No platform is 100 percent secure if you have physical access to it.”