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Robotics Rodeo: En route to safer convoys

Big Army trucks lumbering down supply routes often run into trouble. One way to reduce the risk is to take the driver out of the driver's seat.

TORC Technologies

FORT HOOD, Texas--Click briefly through the parade of cautionary fireballs that make-up the Iraq/Convoy category on any video-sharing Web site and the message is clear; in war, people get killed making deliveries.

The military wants to do something about that--namely, get soldiers out of the driver's seat. To help move things in the right direction, a Robotics Rodeo at the sprawling Army installation here in the heart of Texas gave some companies a chance to show what they have to offer. The rodeo, which ended Thursday, was sponsored by the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) and by III Corps.

Autonomous Solutions demonstrated its GuideLine system, wherein a lead truck transmits angle and length data to a vehicle automation system, which in turn drives the "followers." The vehicles are tethered together with a thin Kevlar line, which controls the distance between them. A sensor is mounted on the front bumper of the follower, but no modifications are required to the lead vehicle, according to the company. The all-weather system works night or day and is not RF- or GPS-dependent, nor is there a computer-based control station, according to the Utah based company. In this demonstration video, Autonomous Solutions used a remote-controlled lead vehicle supplied by Boeing.

Kairos Autonomi brought a rough-and-ready, one-size-retrofits-all solution to the Robotics Rodeo. The Pronto4 Strap-on Autonomy System can convert any vehicle with a steering wheel into a tele-operated or semi-autonomous unmanned system in about four hours, according to the company.

The Kairos do-it-yourself kit includes a "single enclosure system" with transmission, brake, and throttle controls, a built-in CPU, 900MHz radio subsystem, axis linkage, steering set-up, cables, preloaded software, and a user's manual. This system is also used on target vehicles, allowing them to scoot around at up to 90 mph, according to the company.

TORC Technologies offers another take--put the unmanned vehicle in front of a convoy, where it can absorb roadside bombs. (See TORC's video) The system, called Autonomous Remote Control HMMWVs (ARCH), takes a modular approach, integrating a number of TORC's plug-in products including PowerHub, ByWire, (PDF), and--most important for an autonomous, 5,200-pound Humvee--the SafeStop wireless emergency stop system.

The "lead" vehicle carries an autonomous navigation system, while the manned "chase" vehicle carries the control unit. The operator steers the lead in tele-operated, semi-autonomous or autonomous mode--the ultimate back seat driver.

TARDEC had its own system on display. Lockheed Martin demonstrated the Convoy Active Safety Technology (CAST) system along with its AutoMate sensor and actuator kit on two TARDEC 2.5-ton trucks. The big advantage CAST has is price, according to the Lockheed Martin crew. They reckon the whole system can be installed for $25,000. CAST is basically an auto-pilot kit. It can switch from manual to automatic with a push of a button. The system maintains a preset distance between convoy vehicles, adjusts speed, and can shift gears and maneuver corners. Another important feature is obstacle detection and avoidance-- accidentally hitting a child while driving in a war zone is a major cause of post-traumatic stress among soldiers, according to TARDEC. The system has been tested on five truck convoys, according to Lockheed Martin.

Among the other companies at the Robotics Rodeo were Oshkosh, SwRI (PDF), and General Dynamics.

No one at the Rodeo expects unattended robo-conveys to be speeding from Karachi to Kandahar anytime soon. But elements of these systems could help soldiers recover from a momentary distraction, a nod-off, or worse, and that's a huge gain.