Eyes on the future of military UGVs
By Max Blenkin
Warfare is evolving and the Australian Army, the largest operator of unmanned aerial systems in Australia, has more than just flying robots in its future.
In the conflict of the next decade, un-crewed armoured vehicles could deliver soldiers to combat then evacuate the wounded. Humans aboard scout vehicles could guide small uninhabited ground vehicles (UGVs) to inspect a choke point for mines or improvised explosive devices. And while there will always be a need for sweating soldiers to patrol, they will soon be accompanied by a robotic wheeled ‘mule’ to carry packs, water and supplies, or ammunition.
Army has long operated unmanned aircraft for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and specialist tracked robots for bomb disposal. With UGV technology rapidly advancing, it is now thinking long and hard about its terrestrial robotic future.
Some of these new technologies have already been tried out in the field. During Exercise Talisman Sabre last year, the Army trialled the MAPS (Mission Adaptable Platform System) Mule, a six-wheeled robotic vehicle made by Queensland company Praesidium Global and able to transport a useful load of up to 850kg.
It has also conducted trials with robotic M113AS4 armoured personnel carriers. These vehicles have been converted by BAE Systems Australia to be optionally manned, an emerging concept which permits the vehicles to perform certain tasks autonomously or by remote control. That could include evacuation of casualties from the battlefield. It has also acquired a pair of quadruped robots made by US company Ghost Robotics that resemble robotic dogs to assess the utility of legged robots.
Army is also examining what benefit it could gain from uninhabited watercraft, of potential use for riverine scouting or ship-to-shore resupply.
But this isn’t just about robot platforms. The Army is also looking at how robotic systems and artificial intelligence (AI) could help commanders make better, faster decisions. All this is in step with the Army’s Robotic and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Strategy, released in October 2018.
The RAS strategy emerged from the Army Innovation Day in 2017, and leading this effort is LTCOL Robin Smith, staff officer for robotic and autonomous systems within the Army’s Future Land Warfare Branch.
“It was obvious to the senior leadership that autonomous and robotic systems were coming more to the fore in terms of the availability of the tech in civilian and military world,” LTCOL Smith told ADBR. “That talks to the over-arching premise that Army is operating under at the moment which is ‘Accelerated Warfare’ – this idea that Army or defence or the nation is in persistent competition.
“That technology is out there,” he added. “Remote control cars have been around forever, and they are getting better and better. The human interface to those machines is improving with things like virtual reality and augmented reality. It is now on your phone. The seniors appreciated that these type of systems would become increasingly important.”
Other than its bomb disposal robots, the Army is a relative latecomer to robotic ground technology. Army and the RAAF have operated UAS in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2004, while the Navy is operating some small uninhabited underwater vessels (UUVs).
LTCOL Smith says that’s because air is much more straight forward than ground, amply demonstrated by the technical challenges of self-driving cars. Vast sums have been spent by carmakers and technology firms such as Apple and Tesla, and while great progress has been made there is as yet no viable self-driving car. And that’s because humans have zero tolerance of machine failure.
“We tolerate human failure, but machine failure we do not,” he said. “About 1,200 people a year are killed on Australian roads. Even if driverless cars were half as good, there would be 600 more people alive next year. That’s not good enough – two people have died in proper autonomous cars over the time of the project over the last couple of years, and the project has nearly come to a standstill.”
Other nations have fielded UGVs in various roles. Late last year US Army announced it planned to buy 624 General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) MUTT (Multi-purpose Equipment Transport) UGVs, essentially to lighten soldiers’ loads. Similar to the Australian Mule, MUTT has been acquired under the long running Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport (S-MET) program. Each MUTT costs around US$100,000 (A$146,000).
Like Australia, the US appreciated that, in recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers were more heavily laden than ever before. Patrolling in baking heat or arctic cold, soldiers are now often required to carry near or more than their own body weight in water, body armour, ammunition, radios, batteries, night vision equipment, medical supplies and rations.
MUTT features basic remote and autonomous operation and comes in three variants, with the larger eight-wheeled model able to carry a load of up to 550kg to support a nine-soldier squad for three days.
Arguably the world leader in the operation of UGVs is Israel. With its particular strategic circumstances, Israel has fielded a range of systems to meet its needs. That includes the IAI Guardium, an armed Jeep-sized vehicles used for patrolling the border with Gaza.
IAI also produces the Panda, a kit which turns a Caterpillar bulldozer up to the massive D9 in size into an armoured robot with varying degrees of autonomous operation. Panda can undertake remote construction, off-road trailblazing, and removal of suspicious obstacles without risk to a human operator.
Russia’s Uran-9 armed UGV entered service at the start of 2019. This is a remote controlled tracked 10-tonne vehicle intended to provide fire support to troops using its anti-tank missiles and a 30mm gun. But the Uran-9 reportedly performed poorly during trials in Syria after repeatedly losing contact with its operator.
The Australian Army is keeping a very open mind. A key consideration is that whatever is acquired will have to deliver an eventual benefit. It will have to be much more than just an item of cool kit. “We can do anything with enough time and enough money. We have to target those things which are not just the low hanging fruit but the most valuable,” LTCOL Smith said, adding that the RAS Strategy defined a vision and the value proposition.
“There are no specifics about whether we want a thing that does X or Y, because that is too prescriptive,” he added. “The idea of the strategy is to take people on the journey.”
But the strategy states this is a necessary journey. In the strategy document’s introduction, Chief of Army LTGEN Rick Burr states, “To ensure Army can maintain a capability advantage and meet future threats, we must start thinking about how Army can best use RAS capabilities, determine what human-machine teaming could look and operate like, and consider how we could operate with and alongside machines.”
This will be much more than simply acquiring new equipment. “In addition to exploring what RAS capabilities can offer, Army needs to consider what changes will need to occur to doctrine, concepts and force design to support the use of RAS capabilities,” LTGEN Burr said. “This will include adapting current acquisition processes to be more agile to ensure Army can keep up with the rapid rate of technology development and improvement.”
The central approach is learning through doing – hence the acquisition of small numbers of robots to trial and assess their capabilities to figure out their value to the defence of Australia.
The Army has trialled the Throwbot, made by US firm Recon Robotics. This is a 1.8 kilogram dumbbellshaped robot deployed by throwing, after which it scuttles into position and transmits imagery to its operator who might only be a few metres away. This is especially useful in high risk building clearance.
Then there is the pair of quadruped robots that have been acquired to assess the value of legged robots. These robots have been named Kuga and Horrie in honour of two distinguished Australian army working dogs.
The Army has no vision of packs of robotic dogs preceding diggers into combat, and neither Kuga nor Horrie can do what a real dog can do such as sniffing out IEDs or bailing up insurgents. But they could be used to conduct surveillance in a high threat or contaminated environment. Like the more widespread program to distribute small UAS across the ADF, the idea is to get Kuga and Horrie into the hands of soldiers to see what ideas emerge.
LTCOL Smith said Army had identified a number of areas where robots could deliver a benefit, the main being lightening the soldiers’ physical and cognitive load. With the US acquiring MUTT and Australia conducting field trials of the Mule, this would appear to be closest to reality for the modern soldier.
But Army has adapted these for other uses. “We discovered for instance that if you want to build a fuel installation you need a lot of sandbags, and moving sandbags is bloody dull, and it’s hard work,” he said.
So instead of up to a dozen soldiers, the UGV can move sandbags back and forth from fill point to where they’re needed autonomously and almost endlessly. Otherwise it can operate by remote control with a soldier providing directions, or in a follow-the-leader mode.
There are also many ways automated systems could enhance command and control. “Think about how we fuse together all the data feeds in a headquarters,” LTCOL Smith said. “You have feeds from the different sensors, you have communications feeds, you have location data and logistic data. If we can fuse that into a rich picture autonomously, as in ‘done for you’, the human in the headquarters are using human traits – creativity, imagination, and conceptualisation, rather than processing information.
“That allows them to potentially have more time and space to make better decisions,” he added. “I am not proposing we have AI decision makers, but certainly AI can do the hard yards.”
That potentially means a smaller and more survivable headquarters on a future battlefield.
While well-equipped, by world standards the ADF is small, so robotic systems could enable the generation of substantial additional mass. “We are a pretty modest sized organisation,” LTCOL Smith said. “So, how can we use robotic and autonomous systems to help make us more present, more lethal on the battlefield?
“That isn’t necessarily just having a whole bunch of robots with guns,” he added. “We can have more sensors in more places and more effectors in more places, which means we can be more effective on the battlefield.”
One approach is the optional crewing of armoured vehicles, an advanced concept which the US Army has also investigated in its search for a replacement for its M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV). But this effort has proved to be challenging, with the third US Army program grinding to a halt in January 2020 when just one company managed to meet the deadline to submit a prototype for evaluation.
Australia is also exploring this concept, contracting BAE Systems Australia to convert the aforementioned pair of M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC). This trial came about through a fortuitous confluence of factors – BAE has a longheld interest in autonomous systems, and more than a decade ago developed the technology for autonomous operation of a Supacat vehicle.
Glenn Logan, BAE Systems Australia director of technology and product development and lead engineer on autonomous systems, said BAE had joined the Trusted Autonomous Systems CRC (Cooperative Research Centre), taking the lead role in the land autonomous side.
CRCs have been around for a long time uniting the research efforts of industry, universities, and government agencies to address particular technical and other problems. Logan said their CRC decided that what was needed was a realistic common test platform. Rather than each organisation coming up with their own platform, they could use the common platform to test their sensor or effector or system.
“We basically looked around and came to the conclusion that with our already strong background with the M113, it made sense to us,” Logan said. “We knew there were a lot of M113s there in good state of repair.”
The M113 is a Vietnam War-era APC. BAE conducted an extended and costly upgrade program in the late 1990s and early 2000s, modifying 431 vehicles to the more advanced and robust M113AS4 configuration. While these are probably the best M113s in the world, their basic 1960s design has left them vulnerable to modern threats so they are set for replacement from 2024 through Project LAND 400 Phase 3.
Following the release of the RAS strategy, Army has become more focused on autonomous technology, and gave the go-ahead for the conversion of the two M113s. Logan said the conversion wasn’t too difficult, requiring the integration of sensors, a datalink, an autonomous ‘black box’, an additional braking system, plus mechanical actuators for throttle, brakes and gears.
The key autonomous IP resides in the black box, steadily developed and used in a number of aircraft and vehicles including the original Supacat. A version with triple redundancy will operate flight controls on Boeing’s Loyal Wingman. This is sovereign technology, fully developed in Australia.
The Army is now considering a fleet of 20 vehicles to fully explore the concept of mass use of autonomous vehicles on the battlefield. That leads to the concept of swarming, usually applied to large number of small UAVs mutually cooperating to attack a target such as a ship.
LTCOL Smith says swarming remains immensely challenging. Even a Chinese PLA demonstration of a large number of small UAS apparently programmed to be at a particular place at a certain time did not amount to true swarming.
For that, each would need a high level of autonomy and AI through complex and expensive onboard systems. A step down is for a master drone to tell others what to do, but both options require a complex communications network.
Both BAE Systems and the Army are adamant this isn’t a plot to re-purpose the M113 fleet; it’s intended solely to explore the potential of this concept.
LTCOL Logan said, from a technology readiness level (TRL) viewpoint, the autonomous M113s are around levels six or seven. That’s pretty good, meaning the system has been validated in simulated and real environments.
“We have demonstrated it in a representative environment,” he said. “There is still a fair bit work to do to make it a viable system, but we have reduced significant technology risk around this.
“It has really helped no end that the government has really had a focus on Australian industry and allowed … a lot of people to commit time and energy and funding towards this with a sense of certainty that this is going to pay off for Australia.”
He added that there were a whole range of scenarios where not having a crew in the vehicle was a benefit. “Obstacle breaching is the most dangerous activity in the direct fire battle zone. If you didn’t have to have a human in the breaching vehicle, we are potentially saving a life.
“So we are just teasing through those concepts,” he added. “We are not trying to do capability development. We are trying to do concept development that leads to the user requirements to say I want to be able to do this or that.
“That is a really important point from my perspective – to try to create those ideas in people’s minds and broaden horizons and then see opportunities that are not there right now.”
These vehicles can be operated by remote control, in follow-the-leader mode, and can travel cross-country autonomously using GPS waypoints for which it needs a collision avoidance system. “It doesn’t need to be good enough to drive around a city centre. It needs to be good enough to not ram into a tree,” LTCOL Smith said. “With fairly rudimentary collision avoidance you can actually operate successfully around the battlefield.”
In a recent demonstration, to the Army’s senior advisory committee, the two robot M113s arrived at a suspected ‘enemy’ position and offloaded the robot dogs who confirmed the position was clear. Crewed platforms then delivered soldiers forward and the soldiers then dismounted and searched the position. The soldiers subsequently discovered a casualty who was loaded aboard one of the M113s which autonomously returned to a casualty collection point.
Casualty collection is an appealing capability. In the 1982 Falklands War, some wounded from the attack on Mount Tumbledown had to wait significant periods of time for treatment while the assault proceeded. In Afghanistan, procedures for casualty treatment and speedy evacuation were so effective that soldiers frequently recovered from wounds which would once have proved non-survivable.
LTCOL Smith said such a regime was possible in Afghanistan but might not be possible in an intense peer-on-peer conflict. “Could we do better in a future conflict? My view is that automating some of that could be useful.”
Individual health monitoring systems could summon autonomous transport to move the wounded soldier to a casualty collection point. But a cross-country ride in a UGV could worsen a spinal injury. “There are a whole bunch of reasons why it could be very hard to do,” LTCOL Smith added. “But if you just conceptualise it for a second, it could be useful.”
The US is examining similar concepts, and the supply chain appears to offer many opportunities for robotic systems. LTCOL Smith said the current echelon supply system which is, “essentially a small pile ready to deploy at short notice, a slightly larger pile further back, and a really big pile where we think it is safe”, isn’t much different to North Africa in 1942.
“We are better at it than we were then, and we deal with different volumes,” he said. “Could we do that better? If we know more about what was being consumed, we could only then move what we need to move. Could we get robotics system to deliver to vehicles? Could we refuel an IFV of the future autonomously? Of course we could. We just haven’t asked to do it.
“This comes down to what do we want the robot to do,” he added. “Do we want it to do only one thing and is it better (or safer) than a human? This is a question we ask ourselves all the time. What is that robot doing for you, and is it better than the alternative?”
In Afghanistan, the US military successfully trialled a pair of Kaman K-Max unmanned helicopters to transport supplies to remote outpost bases. LTCOL Smith said a similar task using UGVs would probably be too difficult given the current state of technology and the sheer complexity of the ground environment.
But many other types of resupply tasks could be performed robotically. For example, a robotic refuelling forward point for helicopters, or UGVs delivering supplies to a forward point for collection.
Defence is examining providing a degree of autonomous operation to the Army’s big trucks for long-haul convoy operations, say from Adelaide to Darwin. The lead vehicle would be driven by a human or advanced unmanned capability, with others in follow-the-leader mode.
As Army embarks on its UGV journey, there are plenty of other considerations.
One is the overall network, with compromises between the degree of autonomy and the network capability for re-tasking and mission updates. “The requirement for a network and the protocols, and the architecture, and the interfaces that all these systems will need to have, both from an army and a joint perspective, are really important,” LTCOL Smith said. “We can get cool robots and we can trial them, but how do we knit this together in a (whole-of-) Defence way to create a holistic capability.”
Then there’s the practical matter of controllers: would each platform require a unique controller with different protocols, or could there be a standard controller for all UGV and UAS? In some circumstances, a controller may not even be necessary. For example, the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group is experimenting with hand gestures to control robotic systems in the field.
Any discussion of autonomous defence system inevitably leads to that old trope – killer drones. Though Defence is pursuing uncrewed capabilities across all three services, there is no program on the horizon that could allow a machine system to inflict lethal force without the input of a human operator.
Smith says defining an autonomous weapon system is hugely problematic. Phalanx close-in weapons systems (CIWS) on Navy warships can operate in autonomous mode, only because reaction times to respond to fast moving missiles are beyond the ability of humans. In an operational environment that is unlikely to endanger a passing fisherman.
In closing, the RAS strategy says there are many moral challenges that Army will need to address, including legal and ethical issues around the use of autonomous weapon systems and application of force.
“These issues primarily revolve around where the human features in the decision cycle ‘human-in-the-loop,’ ‘human-on-the-loop’, or ‘human-off-the-loop’,” the strategy reads. “All weapons systems developed and deployed by Army, including RAS, will be compliant with Australia’s obligations under international law.”
LTCOL Smith said understanding of the application of lethal force was often overlooked.
“Why do we apply lethal force? It’s to persuade, influence or create momentum on the ground,” he said. “Lethal force is generally applied as part of a mission because the armed adversary wouldn’t move, or they couldn’t be persuaded in another way to do that.
“We wouldn’t design a system we couldn’t control in the same way that we can control a human. Sometimes it is much more powerful to not apply lethal force,” he added. “The threat of the use of forces is often enough.
“Sometimes people get carried away with the killer robot idea, but they don’t really unpack what is it they mean by an ‘autonomous’ system. We would not deploy a system that doesn’t comply with our international obligations. This is true of all systems, not just those with autonomy.”