The UK Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) demonstrated a range of uncrewed ground vehicles (UGVs) at the Combat Service Support Training and Development Unit (CSS TDU) in Aldershot on 12 August.
Dstl has been researching the potential use of autonomous systems for resupply operations to provide greater capability and utility for the Army with its Joint Tactical Autonomous Resupply and Replenishment (JTARR) project.
Project Theseus was announced by the Secretary of State for Defence in March 2019, following the progress made by the autonomous ‘last mile’ challenge led by Dstl. A year later, Dstl announced the purchase of five new UGVs. The two contracts, collectively worth £5m, have been awarded to HORIBA MIRA (Viking) and QinetiQ (Titan) to provide a number of UGVs.
Dstl principal technical authority and spokesperson Guy Powell told Army Technology: “We are exploring how much autonomy UGVs can perform, and we want them to do as much as possible.”
Last-mile autonomous resupply could provide vital support for ground troops widely dispersed on the battlefield.
Powell said the UGV platforms have different systems each with different capabilities, and that the best approach may be to choose the appropriate one for individual missions.
Survivability has not received much focus thus far, but Powell said: “These UGVs are expandable to a point, but we still need them to perform the task they intended to and not being taken out by a single bullet.”
Dstl will explore how much armour could be put on vehicles without compromising their performance. “Any additional equipment, any additional armour means we can put less payload on the vehicle,” said Powell, but decreasing detectability is also a factor in survivability.
The works seek to increase understanding of the system’s potentials and limitations, to reduce the risks specific to the acquisition of the JTARR capability, and will also help develop deeper knowledge for the army’s future employment of more advanced autonomous system capabilities. Powell said the current tests should provide all the answers armed forces need until the end of the fiscal year.
The future of the project will largely depend on Dstl receiving further funding.
“Future funding would likely be smaller than the initial one, as the procurement of the vehicles cost the most,” Powell added.
As the next step of the project, within about six months, soldiers will be given UGV platforms like the Viking and Titan to test their competence on the battlefield.
Powell said: “it is about testing the capabilities, rather than these machines themselves.”
Equipment support Sergeant Major Dan Brown added: “It’s not that the British Army will buy 300 of each of these machines [Titan or Viking]. It’s about testing the concept of autonomous UGVs itself.
“We are seeing what the capabilities are that we want, what are the potential capabilities these machines can deliver, and how reliable they are.”
Brown said the army has not explored all options on how to protect the UGVs from spoofing or jamming, but autonomous operation is possible in GPS-denied areas with the Viking.
Brown said of solider sentiment towards the UGVs: “If there is a machine that can do what a human can but take personnel from harm’s way, that’s a fantastic thing.
“If robots can take over certain tasks, soldiers can do other, more vital ones,” Brown adds.
“The concept of resupply is critical. Troops can’t fight without water, food or ammunition. And these [UGV] platforms are very good. It is absolutely realistic to deploy them in the near future.”
The experiments were meant to start in July 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the process and tests could only begin last April.
The lessons learnt from the current experiments are already being fed into future projects, said Powell.
The programme’s next steps will involve chemical sensing, survivability, weaponry and detectability testing. But Powell warned: “We have an idea what we want these machines to do for us, but we have to put reality around it.”
Testing weaponry on the UGVs is not part of the current phase, but when the time comes, those weapons would always be under human control, he emphasised.
“We want to get autonomy to do the movement part of the missions very well, and always have humans do the lethality part.”
He said these UGVs represent the most advanced technology when it comes to ground vehicles, but the automation and computer aspect of the concept still poses challenges to the success of the research.
The autonomous range for resupply tasks is not yet fully explored, but the vehicles have internal navigation systems (INS) on board, and Dstl says capabilities with the autonomous operation in GPS denied areas are very much possible. INS sensors can integrate an internal or external global navigation satellite system (GNSS) receiver for navigation data and velocity.
Powel says: “the Viking’s visual terrain recognition looks at the outside world and characterises the object, while QinetiQ’s stereo vision works very much like human vision.” These are the primary means the UGVs detect their surroundings.
Both vehicles can run on an electric battery and in a diesel-electric hybrid mode, which shows the MOD’s commitment to experimenting with greener choices when it comes to future technologies.
The Viking is fast given its six wheels, of which the rear and front pairs can all turn and help with manoeuvres. It is agile and can reach top speeds of 50km/h even in electric mode.
The Titan continuous track limits speed but allows for improved mobility and proves better to overcome obstacles than the Viking.
The Titan is powered by lead-acid batteries, whereas the Viking has lithium-ion batteries. Powell said that although the former is less advanced, is a well-established and reliable technology within the army.
HORIBA MIRA’s UGV offers an integrated cutting-edge AI-based autonomous system, including GPS denied navigation, advanced terrain perception and object recognition. It can carry up to 600kg of supplies and uses a low-bandwidth communication system for command and control.
TITAN’s tracked system is based around a modular mission system software architecture and can carry payloads of up to 750kg.