Robotic Combat Vehicles: Putting the Brains Behind the Brawn

A new era of Robotic Combat Vehicles (RCV) is about to begin. The U.S. Army is getting ready to evaluate competing candidates to meet requirements for light and medium versions of a new class of modular unmanned ground vehicle (UGV). Designed to be controlled in the field via remote control, and in the future, autonomously, these new robot tanks have the potential to revolutionize ground warfare. We witnessed the debut of this emerging class of “robo-tank” when the Ripsaw M5 was unveiled by the team of Textron Systems, Howe & Howe, and FLIR Systems at the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) Conference, in October 2019. A couple months later, in January, the Army announced contracts to buy eight experimental RCVs for use in wargame tests next year. QinetiQ North America, along with its partner Pratt & Miller, was selected to provide four of their EMAV robots (Expeditionary Modular Autonomous Vehicles). Textron was tapped to provide four of the Ripsaw M5s.

Textron’s booth at a recent AUSA (Association of the United States Army) trade show, just a couple booths away from our own, gave us a good look at their electric-diesel hybrid motor-powered Ripsaw M5 prototype. The Ripsaw embraces a ground-breaking scalable approach that uses common components and common drive systems. This enables the same RCV platform to be configured as needed to satisfy a wide range of mission requirements, with options such as different payloads and suspension packages. This modular approach enables the RCV to address real-time situational awareness, route clearing/breaching and weapon system applications.

The Ripsaw M5 robotic combat vehicle (RCV) developed by Textron Systems, Howe & Howe, and FLIR Systems. (Photo: Textron Systems)

In addition to hosting integrated FLIR sensor technology, including electro-optical and infrared night vision cameras to provide 360-degree situational awareness support, Ripsaw M5 can also carry a smaller “marsupial-style” UGV that can disembark from the host RCV via a ramp. It can also carry drones, like the R80D Skyraider quadcopter. When configured for route clearing/breaching, the Ripsaw can deploy an IED detection version of the marsupial UGV, as well as provide ground penetrating radar and additional mine clearing and IED mitigating capabilities. Ripsaw can also be configured with an array of weapon systems, including, for example, a medium caliber cannon, and a CROWS-J remote controlled missile launcher that supports Javelin anti-tank missiles.

With the emergence of next-generation UGV platforms, like the Ripsaw M5 shown at AUSA, demand is growing for open architecture, modular processing and networking solutions able to adapt to these varying missions, while minimizing size, weight and power (SWaP) demands on fuel and battery power. Low-SWaP COTS-based mission computers and network switch subsystems can deliver the required performance today, while minimizing the impact on the UGV’s mission duration or distance. Another design consideration for this new class of ground vehicle is the Army’s VICTORY initiative, which is based on two ubiquitous networks, CANbus and Ethernet. Use of the VICTORY architecture helps these platforms reduce SWaP, eliminate vetronics redundancy, foster interoperability, and deploy new capabilities.

Ideal for deployment on these RCVs are newly emerging rugged ultra-small form factor (USFF) subsystems that provide mission computer functionality and the network switch/routing backbones for onboard electronics to communicate with each other. Mature, high technology readiness-level (TRL) super compact COTS-based mission computers can eliminate design risk for RCVs if they are pre-validated through extensive environmental, power, and EMI compliance testing per demanding standards including MIL-STD-810, MIL-STD-461, and MIL-STD-1275.

The Expeditionary Modular Autonomous Vehicle (EMAV) designed, developed, and built by Pratt Miller Defense. (Photo: Pratt Miller Defense)

COTS-based miniature mission computers can also offer UGV system designers a variety of processor types from which to choose. For example, RCV system integrators can choose from a 64-bit multi-core Intel-based mission computer that weighs less than 1.5 lb and takes less than 40 cubic inches of space, or a lower-power ARM-based NVIDIA Jetson processor that provides native support for TensorRT, NVIDIA’s popular deep learning/artificial intelligence (AI) inference design kit. Support for AI processing cores is sure to grow in importance as on-platform sensor systems are used for such applications as threat monitoring, object detection, predictive analytics and pattern recognition in a battlefield environment.

Curtiss-Wright’s Parvus DuraCOR 311 mission computer

Open architecture line replaceable units (LRU) often feature built in modularity, enabling an RCV system designer to adapt the mission computer’s I/O with different mixes of add-on Ethernet, video, and serial modules to meet the platform’s specific interface requirements. Support for the popular deterministic vetronics network, CANbus, can also be integrated via a small mezzanine card if it’s not already resident on the processor module.

Examples of rugged USFF mission computers and network switch/routers well-suited for use on this new class of SWaP-constrained UGV, represented by the Ripsaw M5, include Curtiss-Wright’s Parvus DuraCOR 311 and DuraCOR 312 mission computers and the DuraNET 20-11 switch, one of the industry’s smallest and lightest Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) switch subsystems. With previous experience providing COTS DuraCORs and DuraNET hardware to an autonomous system supplier to upgrade a multi-platform autonomous vehicle program, these fully rugged LRUs can perform optimally in the harsh deployed environments in which UGVs are built to operate. These electronics are fully tested and validated to meet the MIL-STD-810G, MIL-STD-461F, MIL-STD-1275D, MIL-STD-704F and RTCA/DO-160G standards.

Curtiss-Wright’s Parvus DuraCOR 312 mission computer

The DuraCOR 311 is powered by an Intel Atom processor that features integrated Intel HD graphics. It comes with a full complement of standard I/O interfaces (including USB, Ethernet, serial, DIO, video, and audio) and supports I/O expansion via three Mini-PCIe expansion slots for the broad ecosystem of rugged COTS Mini-PCIe modules (including MIL-STD-1553, CANbus and ARINC 429 databus interfaces). The DuraCOR 311 also features MIL-performance circular connectors and a fully dust and waterproof chassis. In addition to an internal mSATA SSD slot, the system offers a removable 2.5" SATA SSD storage option for high capacity storage and information assurance requirements. Software support includes pre-loaded Linux or Windows operating systems. The unit’s Intel processor supports HD-class video acceleration, including OpenGL, OpenCL, and OpenVG.

Curtiss-Wright’s DuraNET 20-11 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) switch

The Parvus DuraCOR 312, a powerful and flexible USFF mission computer, is powered by NVIDIA’s industrial Jetson TX2i module, which combines six power-efficient ARMv8 processor cores and a 256-core CUDA-compatible NVIDIA GPU (for GPU-accelerated parallel processing). The mission computer’s software support includes pre-loaded NVIDIA Linux for Tegra (L4T) based on Ubuntu, which supports common APIs and NVIDIA development tool chain for Deep AI learning.

Designed to provide the network connectivity to support a UGV’s VICTORY architecture, the Parvus DuraNET 20-11 is one of the smallest and lightest rugged 8-Port GbE switches available. This fully managed Layer 2+ switch uses an innovative combination of high-density PCB layout and system-on-a-chip (SOC) technology to deliver advanced network switching in an unprecedented tiny form factor. Weighing less than 0.50 lb, this cost-effective LRU requires <10 cubic inches of volume and consumes <8.0 Watts of power.

With the advent of modular, next-generation UGVs, system designers will increasingly seek to add more processing and networking capabilities on smaller, more densely integrated platforms. These vetronics subsystems will have to be affordable, truly rugged, designed with open architectures and optimized to put the least possible burden on the platform’s power or fuel supply. The good news is that trusted and proven COTS-based solutions for these applications are already available.

This article was written by Mike Southworth, Senior Product Manager, Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions (Ashburn, VA). For more information, visit here .