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Driverless trucks get in shape for US Army convoy duty

Recent tests, says Lockheed Martin, show that fully autonomous convoys can safely navigate road intersections, oncoming traffic, stalled and passing vehicles, and pedestrians.

US Army driverless trucks
Driverless trucks head down the road in a test of the AMAS program for the Army and Marines.
Lockheed Martin

Google may have the best-known driverless vehicles, but the US Army surely has the largest.

Defense industry heavyweight Lockheed Martin said Thursday that testing has wrapped up on a series of advanced tests in the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS) program for the US Army and US Marine Corps. The testing, Lockheed said, showed that fully autonomous convoys can operate in urban environments and with a mixture of vehicle types.

What challenges did these driverless vehicles face? The trucks had to navigate road intersections, oncoming traffic, stalled and passing vehicles, pedestrians, and traffic circles in test areas both rural and, with less margin for error, urban.

Somewhat like the jury-rigged systems seen on the first generation of robotized cars, the AMAS program for the Pentagon's ground troops uses standard-issue vehicles outfitted with a kit of gear including a high-performance LIDAR sensor and a second GPS receiver, locked and loaded with a range of algorithms. That gear, Lockheed said, could be used on virtually any military vehicle, but in these tests was affixed to the Army's M915 tractor-trailer trucks and to Palletized Loading System vehicles. (The photo above shows a pair of PLS road warriors followed by an M915.)

AMAS-equipped vehicles can still be operated manually by human drivers, and the sensing and control function in a truck in self-driving mode should alert its occupants to safety threats.

Consumers and businesses can't go out and buy robo-cars just yet, but the era of driverless rides is nearly upon us. Google has been front and center in the effort to integrate robo-cars into real-world environments, and a range of automakers, from Nissan and Lexus to Audi and GM, have been getting in on the game.

Meanwhile, a handful of states -- California, Nevada, and Florida -- have made it legal to test driverless cars on public roads. The latest round of AMAS testing, though, took place earlier this month in the wide open, and much less public, environs of Fort Hood, Texas.

Convoys are commonplace arrangements for military vehicles, of course, but research shows that similar platooning of civilian vehicles could save fuel, fit more cars on the road, and even improve road safety.

"The AMAS CAD hardware and software performed exactly as designed, and dealt successfully with all of the real-world obstacles that a real-world convoy would encounter," David Simon, AMAS program manager for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, said in a statement. (In this case, CAD refers to the Capabilities Advancement Demonstration portion of the AMAS program, not to computer-aided design.)

The development and testing of the AMAS platform stems from an $11 million contract that Lockheed Martin received from the Defense Department in October 2012.

AMAS algorithms also are used to control the company's Squad Mission Support System, a more distinctive and less conventional six-wheeled unmanned ground vehicle that has been used by soldiers in Afghanistan.