The Role of Autonomous Unmanned Ground Vehicle Technologies in Defense Applications

Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is also being hailed as a part of Industrial Revolution 4.0, has established its presence across myriad fields in recent years. AI has become somewhat of an umbrella term for a host of scientific and technological evolutions across various applications, computer sciences, and use cases.

Known predominantly as a series of technologies that promote intelligent execution of tasks in machines, AI is rapidly establishing itself as a reality in the current technological landscape, as well as a robust solution for future evolutions. The success of the AI field is characterized by the ever-increasing availability of computing power and data, backed by advancements in electronics miniaturization and machine learning (ML), among others.

While AI already has a significant presence across various commercial sectors such as retail and banking, its scope for defense and security is becoming more prominent in recent years. Artificial intelligence can be used for a plethora of defense applications including novel weaponry development, command and control of military operations, logistics and maintenance optimization, and force training and sustainment.

The integration of AI is also bringing more autonomy to military applications, particularly in unmanned machines and robots. These range from aerial autonomous vehicles to unmanned ground vehicles that can function with the help of environmental sensors and AI with little to no human intervention.

Nations worldwide, including the US, UK, Estonia, and Russia, are becoming more aware of the merits of UGVs as combat vehicles and force enablers.

Autonomy in Land Defense Vehicles

The first truly autonomous vehicle came into being in 1984, developed by the ALV and Navlab projects from Carnegie Mellon University. Various research and development efforts have been undertaken since then, giving rise to a number of advanced Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) prototypes. Advancements in technology have expanded the use of robotic autonomous vehicles across many fields in addition to UGVs, including Unmanned Under Water Vehicles (UUV), and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). UGVs are vehicles that operate on the ground, without the need for human presence onboard. They are the land counterparts of marine and aerial unmanned vehicles. All of these vehicles play integral roles in enhancing performance, efficiency, and safety across various applications, including military and civilian.

The Ripsaw Unmanned Ground Vehicle being developed by the Remote Weapons Branch of the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC). (Photo: U.S. Army)

Unmanned ground vehicles are classified into two broad types, remotely operated and autonomous. Autonomous unmanned ground vehicles comprise several technologies that allow the machine to be self-acting and self-regulating, sans human intervention. The technology was initially developed to aid ground forces in the transfer of heavy equipment. However, the technology has witnessed significant evolution over the years, giving rise to more tactical vehicles designed to assist in surveillance or IED search-and-destroy missions. For example, a modular UGV developed jointly by Milrem Robotics and QinetiQ North America, dubbed Titan UGV, is designed to undertake multiple missions, including transport, reconnaissance, and rescue, and can be reconfigured to add or modify functionality as needed.

Autonomous ground vehicles possess several benefits in terms of their size and affordability, in addition to high survivability, which makes them ideal for defense applications across the globe, as security threats continue to become increasingly more unconventional. Nations worldwide, including the US, UK, Estonia, and Russia, are becoming more aware of the merits of UGVs as combat vehicles and force enablers. A range of UGVs are being developed, from the robotic combat vehicle by Textron, to the TheMIS UGV by Milrem, to Russia’s Uran-9 unmanned ground vehicle. Available in different sizes and configurations, unmanned ground combat vehicles can cater to diverse missions and fulfill many roles, taking a step closer to the seamless integration of ground forces and unmanned systems.

Small UGV Models Are Poised To Make a Big Impact

The Next Generation Combat Vehicle's manned-unmanned teaming concept would leverage a protected tether between the NGCV Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle and the Robotic Combat Vehicle in order to give soldiers the capability to safely engage in combat with autonomous systems while safely remaining outside of enemy range. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

In keeping with recent trends, unmanned military vehicles are growing increasingly smarter and smaller. Small unmanned ground vehicle technologies help make battlefields safer for humans. These systems demonstrate a robust ability to undertake several high-pressure tasks, including firefighting, public safety, and the delivery of supplies and medications to patients in remote areas. They are especially helpful in defense applications, as their miniature size allows them to reach and operate in re mote locations that may be inaccessible to humans.

The Dragon Runner 10 (DR-10) is a small 10-pound UGV developed by QinetiQ North America. Operated with an easy-to-use controller, it is equipped with night and day cameras as well as communication transceivers, in order to allow operators to gain a comprehensive understanding of the site from a remote location. The UGV is able to place counter-IED charges and deliver remote sensors, making it an ideal fit for the US Army’s objective of extended tunnel mapping.

What Is on the Horizon for UGV Technology?

A soldier operates a remotely piloted ground vehicle. The next step in the evolution of UGV technology is vehicle autonomy.

There are several innovative technologies under development in the unmanned ground vehicles industry, from small hybrid UGV systems to future-ready unmanned military vehicle platforms. To illustrate, Robotics Research, an autonomy and robotics technology developer for commercial and defense applications has created the Pegasus Mini, a mini version of the transformable hybrid Pegasus (UAV/UGV), which can operate both on the ground and in the air. This hybrid UGV technology delivers a range of capabilities for different sectors, from law enforcement, to first responders, to the military. The Pegasus Mini combines the benefits of both land- and air-based unmanned vehicles, featuring sophisticated GPS functions and high-speed, fully autonomous flying and driving capabilities. It can be used for rapid response, public safety, search and rescue missions, inspection, and lots of other applications across the spectrum.

Meanwhile, BAE Systems has introduced a new UGV platform prototype, called the Robotic Technology Demonstrator (RTD). The system, which has been built as a rolling lab for the integration of emerging autonomy with lethality technology testing, is designed specifically for battlefield applications. The platform is flexible and future-ready, designed to be adaptable to various future developments in sensors, weapon systems, and other payloads.

A team of engineers and scientists from the Army Research Laboratory, supported by the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, is focusing on developing new unmanned vehicle technologies to promote military modernization. To that end, the team is working on adapting an energy-efficient power generator, which has been used predominantly for household energy applications, for use on military vehicles. The research team is evaluating the efficacy of a Stirling cycle generator as a propulsion aid for autonomous ground vehicles. The generator is known for its virtually silent nature, high efficiency, low emissions, and long life. This effort marks the first time that a generator of this scale is being investigated as a possible UGV propulsion technology. The team has created a host of novel technologies to ready the generator for propulsion applications. These include a DC-DC power converter to convert electrical energy from the Stirling generator to the electrical bus of the vehicle.

Additionally, a Clearpath Robotics Warthog UGV, with operational capacity both on land and in water, was modified, leaving behind just the original wheels and chassis. Then, a new lithium-titanate battery along with a new battery management system was developed, to ensure the safety and efficiency of the batteries.

This article was written by Saloni Walimbe, Research Content Developer at Global Market Insights (GMI) (Selbyville, DE). For more information, visit here .