A military truck driver used to be a reasonably safe posting – but that changed with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The widespread use of improvised explosive devices – roadside bombs – has removed “resupply” from the rear echelon and slotted it into position as one of the more dangerous jobs in the military.
Autonomous vehicles could change that, removing many truck drivers and supply handlers from the line of fire.
A recent joint operation by the U.S. Army’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center and the United Kingdom’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory put that to the test.
The Coalition Assured Autonomous Resupply project, or CAAR, successfully combined a convoy of autonomous heavy trucks with smaller robotic ground vehicles that provided last-mile delivery to troops in the field.
The Army conducted the test at the U.S. National Guard’s sprawling Camp Grayling in northern Michigan. It used four Army trucks and two from the U.K. digitally tethered into a “semi-autonomous” platoon. The lead truck had a human safety driver who didn’t take control of the vehicle.
The six-truck convoy included two Humvees, formally known as High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, or HMMWVs. It also had a pair of Light Medium Tactical Vehicles, each with 2.2 tons of cargo capacity. Two large 19-ton-capacity HX-60 utility trucks from the U.K. also participated.
All of the trucks were equipped with the Army’s drive-by-wire robotic kits, called the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System. It is called “applique” because the system is added to a vehicle rather than built in at the factory. The lead truck – one of the Humvees – followed a route programmed into its GPS.
In real life, the cargo convoy would move bulk material from a receiving point – typically an airport or shipping dock in a real combat situation – to a central supply cache near the field of operations. The supplies – usually food, weapons, ammunition, and communications and medical equipment – would then be broken down into unit-sized shipments and loaded onto small robotic vehicles.
In the future, those vehicles could include large cargo drones for airlifting material. The Army tested several before the demonstration, but weather conditions kept them grounded during the operation.
The demonstration convoy carried a mixture of dummy parcels and real equipment. The last mile of the demo used the small British Viking robotic vehicle to deliver lunches to the audience.
AN ARMY MUTT
A U.S. Army MUTT – Multi-Utility Tactical Transport – equipped with both autonomous and robotic operating systems and carrying a remotely controlled weapons system (armed with paintballs for the demonstration), accompanied the Viking. While capable of acting as a delivery vehicle, the MUTT’s task during the demonstration was to inspect the terrain.
Last-mile delivery is a critical – and highly dangerous – part of the military supply chain. It usually takes place in battlefield conditions, and the delivery vehicles often come under fire.
The demonstration tested the interoperability of U.S. autonomy systems with an allied force’s transport equipment.
$166 MILLION PROGRAM
CAAR is a $26.5 million piece of an estimated $166 million, multiyear autonomous convoy and supply program. It began in 2017 under the auspices of the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center – commonly referred to as TARDEC.
The initial CAAR convoy test, in late 2017, combined U.S. and British trucks using on-board robotic systems to autonomously decide on speed and steering as they followed a predetermined route mapped onto their GPS systems.
“The last mile is about how you get supplies and resupplying ammunition, spares, critical medical items, right to the front line,” Pete Stockel, head of the British defense science and technology office’s autonomy challenge program, said in an interview last year with National Defense magazine.
It is often a dangerous environment, under fire and littered with battlefield wreckage.
The Challenge project has helped both U.S. and British military autonomy specialists understand the potential tactics, techniques and procedures necessary for successful battlefield operation of autonomous delivery vehicles, Stockel said.
In 2013, 60 percent of U.S. combat casualties were related to resupply convoy activities, according to the Army. The Army was conducting operations in Afghanistan at the time.
In both Afghanistan and, earlier, in Iraq, anywhere from 100 to 300 fuel and material supply convoys were in motion every day during the height of U.S. military intervention, according to published reports.
Unlike civilian autonomous vehicles that are expected to navigate paved and marked roads, military vehicles often must operate off-road and in fairly rugged, populated environments, dodging livestock, pedestrians and piles of rubble that haven’t been mapped or marked.
The CAAR demonstration allowed military specialists to integrate various systems from different manufacturers and different nations “and get them all to talk together,” said Major Andrew Scruggs, military lead for the project.