MILWAUKEE — The Pentagon's goal of having thousands of driverless military vehicles for use in combat zones and supply missions is closer to becoming reality as Oshkosh Corp. and others develop the technology aimed at keeping troops out of harm's way.
This week, Oshkosh is displaying some of its autonomous vehicle technology — such as sensors and computer systems that can control driverless trucks — at a trade show in Orlando, Fla., sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The truck manufacturer is working with the U.S. Office of Naval Research to produce an unmanned vehicle that would be used by the Marines Corps in supply-line convoys, including trips into combat zones.
Ground-penetrating radar and other mine detection systems are being incorporated into the vehicle to counter the threat of roadside bombs that have killed many troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon wants the unmanned vehicles, often at the front of a convoy, to detect — or absorb the damage from — improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, saving the lives of troops in vehicles that follow. That kind of capability is more important than just having a driverless truck that can cover long distances and never gets tired.
Packed with radar, lasers and cameras that feed information to computers equipped with navigational software, the vehicles must make quick decisions in moving traffic, discerning what's an obstacle in the road and what's something a truck can easily pass over.
The robot trucks also must be user friendly enough that a Marine in a combat zone could monitor them in a convoy and make decisions that save lives and result in a successful mission.
"There absolutely needs to be a human component to these convoys. If you send (driverless) vehicles off on their own, they would be very susceptible to an ambush. Although nobody would get hurt or killed, the mission wouldn't get accomplished," said John Beck, Oshkosh Corp.'s chief unmanned systems engineer.
"We are very confident in saying that (Marines) would be very comfortable in supervising the operation of three to five unmanned trucks in a convoy," Beck said.
After a day of classroom training, and some work with the operating system, a group of Marines recently tested an autonomous-vehicle convoy alongside a manned convoy, putting both sets of vehicles through difficult drills.
"They picked up on the system really fast, and the unmanned convoy was able to keep up with the manned vehicles," said Thomas Pilarski, a principal investigator with the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Carnegie Mellon is working with Oshkosh and others in developing autonomous military vehicles.
Most of the Marines in the recent test were 18 to 22 years old. They were very comfortable with the touch-screen user interface that controlled the driverless convoy, much like a video game.
"We were completely hands off. They had to use the system themselves," Pilarski said.
Trucks are the backbone of the military's supply line, hauling bullets, medical supplies, food and fuel.
Tests at Eglin Air Force Base, in northwest Florida, showed that unmanned trucks in a small convoy could navigate an offroad course that included wooded areas, deep sand and water crossings. Earlier unmanned trucks perceived the world mostly in two dimensions. With improved sensors, now they're "seeing" in 3D, and they're better able to tell what's in the road.
That's a big improvement from 10 years ago when, in a desert race in Nevada, a 16-ton Oshkosh robotic truck earned the nickname "gentle giant" after it balked at some tumbleweed, froze in its tracks and backed into a ditch.
Now the burly vehicle has shown it can muscle its way through a 150-mile course with no assistance from a driver or remote control. Today's driverless vehicles can operate in rough weather, including heavy rain, that previously would have resulted in false readings of obstacle sensors.
"The sensors we have today are much more capable; the systems themselves are much more capable," said Michael Toscano, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a group with more than 7,500 members including defense contractors and academic institutions.
When the ground technology is combined with aerial drones that give a "bird's eye view" of the terrain, "you have a very capable system," Toscano said.
Driverless vehicles are seen as "force multipliers," because if one person can control multiple trucks in a convoy, it frees up other troops for other duties.
With deep budget cuts at the Department of Defense, there's more call for retrofitting current military vehicles with autonomous vehicle kits than developing all-new vehicles from the ground up. Oshkosh is developing kits that can be used on its current military trucks.
Autonomous vehicle technology will become more affordable as it's commercialized in civilian trucks and cars, according to Toscano.
"The key is we have to field the first-generation systems," he said.
Nissan Motor Co. has said it will make cars that drive by themselves by 2020, and at least 16 states have adopted legislation that allows for driverless vehicles.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin has predicted that fully autonomous vehicles will be available for purchase by 2018; Google itself has developed driverless vehicles that have logged hundreds of thousands of miles.
Much of the technology is already available, according to Toscano.
"People don't question the ability to fly, drive and navigate with it ..." Toscano said. "The question is how safely they can do it. At some point in time, if we haven't already reached it, the cars will be smarter than human beings."