Murphy's Law: Driverless Battlefield Vehicles


July 14, 2019: Efforts to develop usable large military UGVs (unmanned ground vehicle) have so far been energetic and prolific, but unable to create vehicles ready for battlefield use. The only ones useful enough to generate large orders and widespread use are the small UGVs. By 2011 Americans had developed and the military deployed the second generation: XM1216 SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle). This is a 13 kg (29 pound) robot, similar to the slightly larger Packbot that demonstrated the concept could work five years earlier. SUGV can carry 3 kg (6.6 pounds) of gear, and one of seven different "mission packages." These accessories include various types of sensors and double jointed arms (for grabbing things.) SUGV is waterproof and shock resistant. It fits into the standard army backpack and is meant to operate in a harsh environment. The battery-powered SUGV is operated wirelessly, or via a fiber optic cable, using a controller that looks like a video game controller with a video screen built in. SUGV can also use an Xbox controller, with the right drivers. Like the current PackBot, SUGV can climb stairs, maneuver over rubble and other nasty terrain.

The SUGV design was based largely on feedback from combat troops. For example, it is rugged enough to be quickly thrown into a room, or cave activated and begin sending video, as well as audio, of what is in there. This feature makes it very popular with the troops, who want droids with the ability to see, hear and smell were more acutely. No one likes being the first one going into a dark, potentially dangerous, place. Throwing a grenade in first doesn't always work, because sometimes frightened civilians are in there. But the current generation of robots are not fast enough, agile enough or sensitive enough to compete with human troops doing this kind of work. Sometimes, however, the robots are an adequate, and life-saving, substitute. SUGV is supposed to be better at this sort of thing.

SUGV can also perform outpost and listening post work. These are two dangerous jobs the infantry are glad to hand off to a robot. Outposts are, as the name implies, one or two troops dug in a hundred meters or so in front of the main position, to give early warning of an enemy attack. A listening post is similar, but the friendly troops are often much deeper into enemy territory. The SUGV battery enables it to just sit in one place, listening and watching, for eight hours or more. After that, you send out another SUGV with a fresh battery and have the other one come back for a recharge. No risk of troops getting shot at while doing the same things and the troops really appreciate that. Again, the problem with this is that the robot sensors are just not there yet. Getting close, but not close enough for troops to trust their lives to this thing.

Other dangerous jobs for the SUGV are placing explosives by a door (to blow it open for the troops), or placing a smoke grenade where it will prevent the enemy from seeing the troops move. In the last seven years, users of current PackBot UGVs have filled military message boards with interesting uses they have found for these robots, and new features they could make use of. SUGV is the product of all that chatter.

Because SUGV became available after most of the heavy combat in Iraq and Afghanistan was over, sales were minuscule. There were still a lot of the older, and still useful, Packbots available. Sales of these UGVs to police department bomb squads became a major source of sales. If SUGV had shown up eight years earlier it would have sold in huge (thousands of units) numbers. After 2011 there simply was not enough demand, especially because so many older UGVs were good enough.

Larger UGVs are having an even more difficult time finding customers willing to buy them in quantity. For example, in 2011 the U.S. Army canceled all versions of its MULE (Multifunction Utility/Logistics and Equipment) robotic vehicle. In 2010, it canceled the transport and mine clearing versions. A year later the remaining version (Armed Robotic Vehicle-Assault Light) was canceled, and development work on MULE ended.

MULE was a UGV that was part of the (now canceled) FCS (Future Combat Systems) program. While maligned by the media, many politicians, and even people in the army, as an expensive boondoggle, FCS provided the money to create some revolutionary, and effective, combat equipment. MULE was one of these futuristic concepts, a robotic vehicle for carrying stuff on the battlefield. In practice, it did not work out. Close, but not close enough.

MULE was a one ton, six-wheeled vehicle that is 4.8 meters (15 feet) long, 1.93 meters (six feet) wide, which carried nearly a ton of equipment or weapons. The operator (any infantryman with an hour or so of training) used a handheld controller to tell the MULE to go from Point A to Point B. The MULE has enough computing power to get over obstacles it can handle and go around those it could not.

The MULE was designed to handle a lot of dangerous jobs normally requiring troops. Like bringing supplies (ammo, water, weapons or medical supplies) that last few hundred meters, to where the fighting is going on. Currently, that means troops hauling this stuff themselves, and exposing themselves to enemy fire. The MULE could also take casualties far enough away so a medevac helicopter could take over. MULE could also be equipped with mine clearing equipment, to perform another dangerous job. MULE was also to be equipped with heavy weapons (.50 caliber machine-gun, small cannon or missiles), that would be fired under human control.

The troops were eager to have something like the MULE around, if only because it makes their life in the combat zone so much easier and safer. The MULE was designed to take a lot of damage and keep going, but only actually using it in combat would reveal what its weaknesses were, and what modifications had to be made. MULE never got that far because field tests were disappointing. So MULE was canceled. Development continued, but not enough progress was made. The troops will have to wait for Son of MULE, which will show up eventually. Work is continuing on similar projects.

After 2001 the U.S. Army suddenly had (for about a decade) more money, and freedom to use it, than it ever expected. A lot of useful stuff was developed, often by simply modifying civilian gear. That also worked with small UGVs. Thus encouraged, by 2005 the army put UGV development into high gear, in an attempt to get more UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles) into the hands of the troops. That worked as between 2005 and 2010, of thousands of small UGVs used by American troops for checking out caves and buildings were put into service and the troop response was very positive. Some of these lightweight (under a 45 kg /100 pounds) robots were even equipped with weapons, but not used much when armed.

The army hoped that the next major development in UGVs would be heavier, weighing 1-3 tons models. That's where the much anticipated MULE came in. As more gadgets are invented for the troops, the weight they have to carry keeps increasing. One solution was believed to be a UGV that can accompany troops, carrying a lot of this load (otherwise, each soldier is going to be carrying about 45 kg (100 pounds) of gear, which is hardly “fighting weight.” There’s one problem, a major one, and that was the building of a sensor/software system that would allow the mule UGV to move along the ground without a human driver. This proved to be a major obstacle, although developers of driverless car systems have demonstrated in the last decade, progress is still being made and that will eventually trigger the appearance of Son of MULE.

Without reliable driverless systems, it was possible to have a remote human operator control a UGV. That keeps people out of harm’s way, and the military is using operators halfway around the world to operate UAVs. This "reachback" technique is possible because of cheaper and more abundant satellite communications. No reason it could not be done for UGVs. And this may be the interim solution until a smart enough UGV navigation system is built. This would be a big help for the troops, as they would have the benefit of these UGV drivers, but these operators (they could even be civilians), would be out of harms' way, and would not consume supplies in the combat zone.

The FCS plan was that, once the MULES were with the troops and working well, armed MULES, some of them armored and weighing up to ten tons, would show up. Without a human crew, a ten-ton armored mule would look like a miniature tank but would be carrying a 25-30mm automatic cannon and 2-4 Javelin missiles. These vehicles would also carry day/night vidcams, thermal imagers, “ears” (acoustic sensors) and a nose (chemical sensors). The combat mules can also talk, using embedded foreign language systems, like the handheld translators troops have been using, or human translators. Again, human operators could be back in the United States, and could even be civilians. The advantage of these armed MULES is that they can destroy enemy armored vehicles while being harder to detect (as they are about the size of small sports car). The main use of these unmanned tanks would be reconnaissance. No friendly troops are risked when these vehicles are hit, and their sensors and human operators (some of whom are far to the rear) are more alert, over longer periods of time, than human crews in current armored vehicles. But the cancellation of FCS put a halt to the development of these larger, armed, UGVs.

Meanwhile, there are already civilian robotic security systems that use UGVs. But their software moves a vehicle around a known course, with limited navigation ability, and only enough smarts to alert a human operator that the droid has encountered something that is not supposed to be there. A combat UGV that will be allowed to decide when and where to fire is possible now. But there is a reluctance to build them and turn them loose.

There is a precedent for such robotic weapons. The first such autonomous weapons of this class were the landmines developed in the 1930s and widely used during World War II. Torpedoes and naval mines are the same types of weapon. But at sea, it’s much easier to keep track of where you are, where you’re going and what the target is. Land warfare is a lot messier and requires much more “intelligent” software to operate effectively. But it’s not a matter of “if” these autonomous war droids are going to appear, but when. It's possible that the next generation of American combat vehicles will be largely unmanned versions. The problem was that the concepts were never able to find tech that would make it work reliably and economically.

The Israelis have been working on the larger UGVs and had a very real need for them because they had hundreds of kilometers of borders in remote areas that were threatened by hostile intruders. These borders were already patrolled regularly by troops in ATVs (all-terrain vehicles), often the Israeli made Tomcar ATVs. In 2006 an Israeli firm produced a robotic vehicle based on the two-seater TomCar. Called AvantGuard, the robotic vehicle used sensors and software that enabled it to patrol along planned routes, and was capable of some cross country operation as well. The designers knew that improved sensors, software and computers would improve capabilities. The AvantGuard mounted a remote-controlled gun turret equipped with a 7.62mm machine-gun. The vehicle had digital cameras facing every direction and used pattern recognition to identify potential threats, like people sneaking around where they are not supposed to be, or obstacles on the road. The idea was that a pair of human operators could control a dozen or more AvantGuard vehicles. This system was particularly effective at night because it had night vision and moved quietly. Weighing only 1.3 tons, the AvantGuard was protected against rifle fire and fragments from shells and smaller roadside bombs. AvantGuard proved adequate for guarding industrial parks, but not the vast stretches of Negev desert, along the border with Gaza. Too many things could go wrong out in the desert (obstacles in the road, hostile action) that AvantGuard could not handle. Despite, or because of actual field testing in border and combat zones, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) and border guard concluded that, while promising, AvantGuard was not worth purchasing. Not yet but eventually.

In 2008, building on the AvantGuard technology, a new firm, G-Nius, produced the Guardium. Using the same TomCar vehicle, and a remote control turret, the Guardium has better sensors and software. Guardium was pitched as "smart" enough to be used in urban areas and to serve as an emergency response vehicle. That is, these would be stationed along isolated stretches of border, ready to drive off to deal with any terrorists who had gotten through the fence. The Guardium would thus arrive before a human quick reaction team, which would be stationed farther away. Guardium was seen as preferable to an earlier proposal; placing remotely controlled turrets in isolated areas, along with security cameras. If you spot some bad guys, the remotely controlled weapon can be used. South Korea and Israel have developed their own remote control weapon systems (SGR-A1 and Samson Jr., respectively) and both countries did install some of these turrets and still use them. Guardium proved effective along the Gaza border, where Palestinians were constantly trying to cross the border, either for economic gain or to kill Israelis. Guardium eventually got better sensors, giving it better hearing than humans and a navigation system similar to those now used by driverless cars. Guardium was so successful that it was able to use its autonomous (not always monitored by a human) mode a lot more. This was largely because of the improved sensors and software that had been improved over several decades to accurately detect what is out there. Despite impressive prototype vehicles Guardium never obtained enough orders to keep the project going and the Guardium project shut down in 2016.

The Israelis kept trying. In 2017 the Rambow UGV appeared. This was a lower vehicle built as a UGV. There was no room, or seats, for passengers. This 6x6 electric drive vehicle has a payload of 454 kg (1,000 pounds) and that can consist of more sensors or an RWS (remote weapons station) using a 7.62mm machine-gun or sniper rifle. So far, no customers but it is a definite improvement on predecessors and eventually one of these new and improved UGV designs will find customer satisfaction, acceptance and order.

There is still major demand for military logistics UGVs, which are simpler and use more robust (works effectively and reliable most of the time) technology. These vehicles are meant to operate on roads or paths that have been checked out by humans. One example of this is the 4x4 Probot. The vehicle weighs 410 kg (900 pounds) and can carry up to 700 kg (1,500 pounds) or one stretcher casualty. Probot does not go for true autonomous operation but instead uses sensors to avoid immediate obstacles and uses GPS to go from one waypoint to another or it can simply follow a man on foot guiding it to its destination. For this there is also a follow the leader (vehicle in front). The lead vehicle can be a manned one carrying a small electronics pack for the following Probot to follow. This wire link can be up to 500 meters. Top speed is 9.6 kilometers an hour (six MPH). This is suited for the nastiest terrain and a man-on-foot leading the vehicle or vehicles. It is battery operated and operates eight hours before needing a recharge. This is an improved Mule that the Americans canceled nearly a decade ago. Probot is a much better UGV but it is unclear if it is better enough to gain enough sales to be profitable and worth continuing to produce.

Given the way the tech has been developing since the 1990s Son Of MULE is closer to being a reality, but probably with a different name and from a commercial developer seeking commercial customers.




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