Driving the future
The Army needs vehicles to be robotics ready’ for the future force.
by Bryan J. McVeigh and Mark Mazzara
Robotic mules that follow Soldiers to carry and charge their gear. Remotely piloted aircraft giving Soldiers real-time intelligence. Standoff systems to let Soldiers investigate and neutralize explosives from the safety of an MRAP. Not too long ago, such capabilities were the stuff of movies, but that future is here todayand shifts in the character of warfare could revolutionize the future for tomorrow’s Soldiers in ways we can hardly imagine. Army leaders describe a future environment marked by great-power competition, rapid technological evolution, incredible speed and the advent of autonomy-enabled technologies. In some ways, that erafor ourselves, our allies and our adversarieshas already arrived, and we have to plan now so that our programs are prepared for a highly robotic battlefield.
In fact, over the last 40 years, the prevalence of software and digital controls in commercial cars, trucks, construction and mining vehicles and recreational vehicles has greatly increased. This has improved the functionality and features of those base systems. Along the way, commercial investment drove down the cost of many technologiesmaking them relatively easy and cost-effective to apply to military vehicles and enable the growth of modern robotic systems.
While this transformation has taken place largely in the commercial sphere, the Army has not been able to take full advantage of these commercial trendsprimarily because of the long life cycles of its systems. It usually takes the Army a lot longer to field a new truck, for example, than consumer-focused companies. By the time the new Army truck hits the field, its onboard electronics may already be out of date, and that makes it hard to add the latest technologywhich today means robotics. That reality must change, and it is clear that change is on the way.
Making our systems “robotics ready” begins by ensuring that the Army acquisition community and stakeholders understand design considerations for manned systems to support subsequent robotics and autonomous applique kits or technologies. An applique kit is a package that can be added to an existing system to provide additional capability. Armor applique kits, for example, provide Army vehicles with a higher level of protection.
Autonomous applique kits provide advanced behavior, such as unmanned navigation and mobility. The possibilities range from managing data to augment a Soldier’s cognitive capability, to increasing system safety, to more fully autonomous mission applications in bridging, breaching and other activities. Whatever the system, with the right effort, the Army can tangibly improve its ability to integrate robotic and autonomous capabilities into existing equipment and future systems and save money in the processif program managers include the appropriate “hooks” early in the design process.
Fortunately, the hooks we need are widely available today on commercial cars and trucks. They include digital backbones, by-wire steering and braking, electronically controlled transmissions, digital controls of key actuators, telematics and active safety systems. (“By-wire” means electronically controlledby-wire braking is controlled by a vehicle’s onboard computers, for example, as opposed to physical brakes pushed by a human.)
Industry has paved the way, and the Army can capitalize with its own investment if it carefully plans for integration now, as opposed to waiting until later and incurring higher costs because of a more complex integration. Including autonomy-enabling technologies up front in either new procurements or service-life extension programs will allow for the integration of unmanned technologies into a system (whether it’s a truck, plane or boat) in a more efficient and cost-effective manner, while also offering immediate advantages to the system’s maintenance and sustainment.
Small- and medium-sized teleoperated ground robots, like the PackBot and Talon families of robots, and large teleoperated mine flails are now commonplace in the Army. Robotic mules and semiautonomous trucks are on track to be in formations within a few years. As the Army accelerates the fielding of robotics and autonomous system capabilities across a variety of formations and demonstrates their real value, it is easy to see how they are likely to increase the range of mission applications. Army technologists envision the same types of technology applied to a variety of existing systemsfrom construction vehicles to material handling equipment; from mine-protected vehicles to tactical trucks; and from armored combat systems to watercraft.
The Army’s Route Clearance Interrogation System (RCIS) Type I is a good example of adding robotic capabilities to an existing systemenabling the unmanned operation of the existing High-Mobility Engineering Excavator Type I (HMEE-I). The HMEE-I operates using manual hydraulic controls and some limited drive-by-wire controls. In 2017, the Army prepared to seek bids for a technology applique kit to turn the manned excavator into one that could be robotically operated. First, it converted the hydraulic controls of the HMEE into digital controls. Then it converted the remaining automotive functions to become drive-by-wire rather than manually activated.
This conversionwhich took more than five years and cost nearly $8 millionresulted in a new variant of the HMEE-I called the Delta HMEE, or D-HMEE. There are numerous other examples of digitization and drive-by-wire conversions: The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center (part of the U.S. Army Futures Command) worked with Torc Robotics to convert a 120M Motor Grader to autonomous control, while Caterpillar has developed teleoperation conversion kits for its D7R-II bulldozer. While a project manager can develop these kits after the fact, it is far more efficient to integrate applique kits and technologies if the underlying digital controls are already in place on the base platform.
For new programs and service-life extension programs, combat developers and program managers (PMs) should consider designing their systems to be “autonomy ready” from the beginning. By including relatively inexpensive by-wire technologies in the base configuration, PMs will make it vastly easier and cheaper to add autonomous capabilities later. So what do they need to include?
Serial data bus and commercial safety technologies. A serial data bus enables the transfer of a sequence of information one bit at a time. It can enable the implementation of various robotic functions and can be built upon later to provide enhanced capability.
Another quick-win requirement to include in performance specifications is commercially available active-safety technology. Technologies like anti-lock braking systems, electronic stability control, collision mitigation braking, automatic lane detection and warning, blind spot warning, reverse cameras and path displays are widely availablemost cars today carry some or all of these. They significantly enhance safety performance and set the foundation for adding active safety, unmanned or autonomous capabilities in the future.
Digitization or drive-by-wire. PMs should include by-wire specific requirements in the development process based on the abilities of the vehicle and expected uses. Selection of by-wire components is heavily dependent on the particular base vehicle, and the use of “bolt-on” kits does not usually make sense if fully unmanned functionality is required. For example, if acquiring a dump truck, the Army should consider not only by-wire control of the system’s steering, braking and transmission but also by-wire control of the dumping system actuators.
Interoperability compliance. Platforms with a high likelihood of someday needing to provide unmanned or optionally manned functionality should consider requiring that interfaces be compliant with the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Ground Interoperability Profile. The Army developed the profile with its industry partners to provide known interfaces for interoperating with robotic and autonomous systems. Acquiring a system that already complies with the profile will allow for greater interoperability once the autonomous capability is added.
Physical interfaces. Systems engineers should consider using commercial standards such as those of the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to define physical interfaces for applique kit integration. They should also leave enough physical space for the later inclusion of applique hardware such as radios, computers and associated electrical wiring and connections.
Onboard diagnostics. PMs should require that onboard diagnostic systems come with the base configuration. This has the direct advantage of improving maintenance, sustainment and safety. The indirect advantage is that the sensors and data needed for diagnostics offer a foundation for providing unmanned capabilities to the system in the future.
Of course, integrating so many new technologies can affect other operations and functions of a system and does require some additional considerations. PMs should ensure that systems are built to the most rigorous standards available. Have the manufacturer run extra fault-injection tests, and make sure the contractor supplies data from those tests, plus safety artifacts such as failure mode diagrams.
COUNTING THE COST
One of the great benefits of leveraging advancements in commercial technology is that market forces and industrial investment have already driven down the cost of manybut not alltechnologies. Requirements developers and PMs should conduct market research to determine the cost implications of including robotics-ready technologies in their base configurations. The D-HMEE development effort cost the Army roughly $8 million in research, development, test and evaluation over about five years. In hindsight, that amount could have been reduced based on lessons learned throughout the development. But the level of effort to convert any nondigital systems into unmanned systems is significant and makes funding hard to predict.
The product cost of converting a base HMEE Type I to a D-HMEE configuration is approximately $75,000. The government estimates that if the D-HMEEs had been produced as new production systems, the per-system cost would be around $25,000 higher than the HMEE Type I. Which is to say that in this case, the total cost of getting an unmanned system by building a basic system first and then modifying it is considerably lower than building an unmanned system from scratch.
Taking into account safety, some analysts believe that the drive-by-wire and active safety systems would provide a return on investment by themselves by preventing accidents and the associated costs. These analysts believe that safety systems built into the original product by its manufacturer, as opposed to add-on by-wire systems, can be more reliable (directly controlling braking without needing to add hardware), less obtrusive to humans (no protruding hardware in the human compartment), and more capable (some vehicle actions are difficult to control after the fact).
Finally, by-wire systems may also substantially reduce overall operation and sustainment costs. Digitization can position programs better for condition-based maintenance and the integration of multifunctional video displays, not to mention a reduction in total system part counts. Condition-based maintenance (also known as vehicle telematics) provides prognostics that tell users ahead of time if maintenance or replacement will be needed. This is possible only with modern components, i.e., those that are part of by-wire systems.
Planning and designing Army systems for future by-wire technologies hold a wide range of potential value in enhanced capability and reduced costs. Opportunities abound to use current technologyin addition to thoughtful design for the futureto capitalize on our ability to accelerate more effective capabilities to the force. Analysts anticipate that industry will offer digitization on a continually higher percentage of systems on the market.
As Army acquisition professionals, we play an important role in informing programs and shaping the future force. While robotic and autonomous capability additions may incur some costs, the long-term advantages may warrant consideration of including the technologies in the near termeven if they are not an explicit operational requirement.
For more information, go to www.peocscss.army.mil.
BRYAN J. MCVEIGH is project manager for Force Projection within the Program Executive Office for Combat Support and Combat Service Support (PEO CS&CSS). A retired Army colonel, he holds a master’s degree in systems acquisition management from the Naval Postgraduate School and is Level III certified in program management. He also is certified as a Project Management Professional by the Program Management Institute.
MARK MAZZARA is interoperability lead for robotics within the Project Manager for Force Projection at PEO CS&CSS. He has held systems engineering positions in the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, the PEO for Ground Combat Systems and PEO CS&CSS, and served in 2014 as the Department of the Army systems coordinator for robotics in the Pentagon. He holds an M.S. in systems engineering and a B.S. in mechanical engineering, both from Oakland University, and is Level III certified in systems engineering and in program management.
This article will be published in the Spring issue of Army AL&T magazine.