While the automotive industry and academia have dominated work in the area of autonomous vehicles in the past, most of the actual autonomously controlled vehicles that have been introduced in recent years have come from the military. This is certainly true in the area of unmanned aerial vehicles such as General Atomics’ Predator and becoming increasing so for autonomous ground vehicles.
While research organizations such as the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are taking a long-term view into research on capabilities such as vehicle platooning, the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps, in particular, are pushing hard to develop autonomous capabilities that meet quick reaction needs in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of operation.
For them, the ability to lighten the burden of the individual soldier or marine is paramount because it is not uncommon for each person to carry more than 100 lb (45 kg) of equipment on their back while on patrol. With that in mind, organizations such as Lockheed Martin Missiles & Fire Control, Virginia Tech, and TORC are developing vehicles that will autonomously follow a squad on patrol while carrying their equipment. Casualty evacuation is another job for these vehicles.
Some of those skills were demonstrated in July when four autonomous vehicles known as Ground Unmanned Support Surrogates (GUSS) participated in the Navy/Marine Corps 2010 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) war games held in Hawaii. Each GUSS vehicle can carry up to 1800 lb (816 kg) and travel at the speed of a marine on patrol or about 5 mph (8 km/h). The base vehicle is a six-by-six from Polaris Defense.
Under the direction of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory and the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, the vehicles were built by a team of engineering students at Virginia Tech using a variety of “robotic building blocks” from TORC. Virginia Tech and TORC also jointly developed an autonomous vehicle for DARPA’s Urban Challenge competitions in 2006 and 2007 and won third place in 2007 when their vehicle completed the 60-mi (97-km) course in less than 6 h.
The four GUSS vehicles tested during RIMPAC are an outgrowth of the technology developed for these DARPA competitions, according to Andrew Culhane, Business Development Manager for TORC.
“The vehicles use our ByWire technology to actuate throttle, break, steering, and shifting; our SafeStop to handle emergency stop; and PowerHub for power generation, regulation, and distribution,” said Culhane. “The timeline from when the vehicles were delivered to first demonstration was less than five months.
“Once you have drive-by-wire, power, and safety addressed, the next piece is that higher level of control to give you autonomy and the operator interface.”
The primary mission of GUSS is in a dismounted follow-me mode. The operator control unit (OCU) is a 1-lb (0.45-kg) handheld unit that TORC calls WaySight. With the OCU, the operator can take remote control of the vehicle, plan a new path for the vehicle, or direct it to follow at a safe distance with the autonomous navigation system taking over.