An unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) is a vehicle that operates while in contact with the ground and without an onboard human presence. hey are the land counterparts of marine and aerial unmanned vehicles. All of these vehicles play integral roles in enhancing performance, efficiency, and safety across various applications, including military and civilian.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can travel long distances, have an excellent vantage for seeing large areas, and have easier lines of sight for communications. In many ways, aerial vehicles are easier to build, deploy, and control. Some jobs, however, must be done from the ground. UGVs have the potential to carry heavyweight payloads, to look inside buildings and under tree canopies, to persist for days, and to operate in all weather conditions. They also occupy ground: in some cases, the physical and visible presence of an armed unit on the ground is itself important.
Generally, the vehicle will have a set of sensors to observe the environment, and will either autonomously make decisions about its behavior or pass the information to a human operator at a different location who will control the vehicle through teleoperation. There are a wide variety of UGVs in use today. Predominantly these vehicles are used to replace humans in hazardous situations, such as handling explosives and in bomb disabling vehicles, where additional strength or smaller size is needed, or where humans cannot easily go. They are also used in industries such as agriculture, mining and construction.
For Defense forces, Semi-autonomous and autonomous unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are changing the way they operate. With increasing capabilities, UGVs are able to avoid human injury and casualty, taking charge of many dangerous, dull and dirty operations across the world. Military applications include surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition. UGVs are highly effective in naval operations, they have great importance in the help of Marine Corps combat; they can additionally avail in logistics operations on to the land and afloat. UGVs are also being developed for peacekeeping operations, ground surveillance, gatekeeper/checkpoint operations, urban street presence and to enhance police and military raids in urban settings. UGVs can “draw first fire” from insurgents — reducing military and police casualties. Furthermore, UGVs are now being used in rescue and recovery missions and were first used to find survivors following 9/11 at Ground Zero.
Countries like US, Russia and china are racing to deploy combat robots and drones on the battlefield and are investing in their research and development to have a military edge over other countries. Various militaries are fielding unmanned systems for surveillance, intelligence, logistics, or attack missions to make their forces or campaigns more effective.
The US Army, under the Combat Capabilities Development Command, has the lead in this regard and the types of unmanned ground systems under development are legion; the most recent induction for use by the field army is the QinetiQ Inc. and Pratt Miller Defense Robotic Combat Vehicle-Light, a purpose-built hybrid electric unmanned ground combat vehicle. Russia has battle-tested the Uran-9 unmanned ground combat vehicle in Syria in 2018 and formally inducted it in its ground force in 2019. The Chinese have also been keeping pace with their development of unmanned ground systems and have introduced Norinco’s Sharp Claw UGV, which was first unveiled at the Airshow China 2014 exhibition in Zhuhai, into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in April 2020. Each of these three UGVs can perform a variety of tasks — from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to fire support and even logistics delivery or casualty evacuation — within their operating parameters.
Future of Unmanned Ground Systems in the Operational Environment
On today’s battlefield, UGVs serve as weapons, logistic carriers, medical evacuation vehicles and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) tools. Priority technologies for autonomous ground vehicles (PC-AGVs) include mobility, navigation, tactical behaviors, health maintenance and learning/adaptation technologies. Based on its application, unmanned ground vehicles will generally include the following components: platform, sensors, control systems, guidance interface, communication links, and systems integration features.
The U.S. Army’s Mad Scientist Initiative hosted the Future of Unmanned Ground Systems Webinar on August 18, 2020. It focused on observations and insights regarding Unmanned Ground System capability development and the future of these systems in the Operational Environment.
All countries are working on three major research areas to improve the effectiveness of robotic ground systems. These systems have been on the battlefield for 100 years but have not delivered a game changing capability. Compare this to the aircraft that from first flight to proof of concept only took 10 years to change the character of warfare. These three research focus areas are: Mobility in complex terrain; requirement outpaces what current autonomous cars are capable of, communication in a contested electromagnetic spectrum, and the ability to collaborate and coordinate with humans in the loop.
Rovery began the webinar and focused on unmanned ground vehicles in the international landscape. According to Rovery, “In 2019, Chinese armored units conducted high-altitude exercises with unmanned systems. The multi-day exercises used remotely operated mine-clearing robots to open routes, during surrounding fire. Images and data were transmitted back to the control center, and this information was then shared with UGVs and a swarm of quadcopters that conducted reconnaissance.” In 2020, the U.S. Army conducted its first robotic combat vehicle experiment focusing on cavalry and scout missions.
Rovery highlighted the use of the THeMIS (Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System) over the past five years among various countries. The UGV is designed to perform a wide range of military missions in dangerous or hard-to-reach areas. It offers enhanced safety and operational effectiveness by keeping warfighters at a safe distance from enemy attack. The vehicle can be configured for different roles, including reconnaissance, observation, target acquisition, communications relay, logistics support platform, rescue, fire-fighting, and medical evacuation (medevac). During various live military exercises, the UGV has been deployed by the British Army, U.S. Marines, the Royal Dutch Army, Latvian, and Estonian Defence Forces. Bendett continued focusing on Russia and its long-term development of UGVs and its trials over the past couple of years in Syria and where Russia will go in the future.
According to Bendett, “Russia’s Syria experience — and monitoring the U.S. use of unmanned systems for the past two decades — convinced the Ministry of Defense (MOD) that its forces need more expanded unmanned combat capabilities to augment existing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) systems that allowed Russian forces to observe the battlefield in real-time”. The expanded use of artificial intelligence will be crucial to both the machines and humans on the battlefield.
“Another significant trend is the gradual shift from manual control over unmanned systems to a fully autonomous mode, perhaps powered by a limited artificial intelligence program. The Russian MOD has already communicated its desire to have unmanned military systems operate autonomously in a fast-paced and fast-changing combat environment,” said Bendett. Kott finished the event by concentrating on the science that drives current and future ground robotics. In a recent podcast, Kott sat down with The U.S. Army Mad Scientist Initiative and spoke about the importance of artificial intelligence. “One of the flagship programs we have is about AI and machine learning for maneuver and mobility on the battlefield. We decided to focus on maneuver and mobility because it is so important for the future of combat vehicles and creates the foundation for many other aspects of AI,” said Kott.
Kott highlighted the challenges that CCDC-ARL is focused on. These challenges are ground mobility and maneuver, coordination and teaming, and communications. Kott stated, “Going forward is directed by two phenomena. One is that everything becomes smart and acquires some degree of thinking ability, and the other is that everything becomes connected. This will continue to drive many developments in technology in industry and warfare.” Participants submitted questions to the panelists that expanded on some of the initial information while delving into other areas connected to the future of UGVs. Previous Mad Scientist Initiative events have focused on future learning, bioengineering, disruptive technologies, megacities, and dense urban areas and identifying other opportunities for further assessment and experimentation.
US Army’s Autonomous Platform Demonstrator, or APD
The U.S. Army’s Autonomous Platform Demonstrator, or APD, is a 9.6-ton, six-wheeled, hybrid-electric robotic vehicle currently undergoing developmental and mobility testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; the demonstrator vehicle represents the state of the art in unmanned ground vehicle mobility technology. With its advanced hybrid-electric drive train, the 15-foot-long vehicle, being developed by the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, can achieve speeds of over 50mph.
When equipped with its autonomous navigation system, the APD is configured with GPS waypoint technology, an inertial measurement unit and computer algorithms which enable it to move autonomously at speeds up to 50mph while avoiding obstacles in its path. “The vehicle has obstacle detection and avoidance technology,” said Dr. Jim Overholt, senior research scientist in robotics, Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center. The mobility testing is aimed at advancing and developing the robot’s ability to maneuver at higher speeds while maintaining extreme terrain-ability at lower speeds. “We’ve run it through courses, slope testing and brake testing,” said Chris Ostrowski, associate director for Vehicle Electronics and Architectures at TARDEC.
The APD is currently testing high-speed maneuverability, such as lane changing. “This is a challenging controls problem with a skid steer vehicle. We want the robot to be stable when performing maneuvers like this, but we also want it to retain the other mobility characteristics that it possesses at lower speeds,” said Ostrowski. Other mobility characteristics include the ability to climb a one-meter step, navigate a 60-percent slope, and pivot turn in place. Being a series hybrid-electric vehicle, the APD is propelled by six in-hub electric motors and has a diesel generator which charges its lithium ion batteries.
“The state-of-the-art hybrid-electric drive train is just one of the mobility technologies we are demonstrating with this platform,” said Andrew Kerbrat, APD project manager, TARDEC. Other technologies being demonstrated include advanced suspension systems, thermal and power management systems, robotic safety systems, and lightweight hull technologies. “We’ve made a lot of progress with this platform in a short time period. From concept to wheels on the ground was just a shade over two years, and in the eight months since then, we’ve driven almost 3,000 kilometers and have demonstrated 95 percent of the metrics that we were trying to show with this platform,” said Kerbrat.
APD is the mobility platform being used by the Robotic Vehicle Control Architecture, or RVCA Army Technology Objective, also out of TARDEC. Working with PEO-Integration, RVCA has integrated a suite of system control, display and sensing hardware and software onto APD that allow it to be controlled real-time by a Soldier, or operate in an autonomous mode.
“It uses a variety of sensors and a Ladar — a laser/radar scanning radar that can detect moving objects at distances,” said Overholt. Additionally, RVCA provides Reconnaissance Surveillance and Target Acquisition capabilities. “It has a four-meter mast with a sensor ball on top so it goes up pretty high and can see out quite a ways,” said Chris Ostrowski. “When you combine the autonomy and control capabilities provided by RVCA with the extreme mobility characteristics of APD, it allows the Soldier operator to quickly deploy a mission payload precisely where he wants it, and over some very tough terrain,” said Kerbrat. “The bottom line is that we are providing the Soldier with a significant capability that will assist him in the performance of his mission, while keeping him safer in the process.”
China’s Unmanned Robots
China introduced some of its latest achievements in military intelligent technology by displaying advanced land, sea and air combat robots at an expo in Beijing in JUly 2021. The event aims to accelerate the Chinese military’s intelligentization development, enhancing its joint and all-field combat capability based on a system of network and information and boosting its integrated development of mechanization, informatization and intelligentization, the institute told the Global Times at the event.
Developed by Beijing North Vehicle Group Corporation under the state-owned China North Industries Group Corporation, the Pathbreaker unmanned ground vehicle weighs 1.2 tons, runs at a top speed of 30 kilometers an hour with caterpillar tracks, and is equipped with an armed reconnaissance system which allows it to conduct reconnaissance, fire assault, patrol, search and destroy operations, as well as strike guidance in complicated terrain at high mobility.
It can be remotely controlled, or automatically follow combat personnel and independently avoid obstacles, an employee at the booth told the Global Times, noting that more advanced types of land robots similar to the Pathbreaker are being developed and will hopefully join the Chinese military service in the future.
Russian Military developing Voice controlled combat drones
The Russian military is testing voice-controlled combat drones for future battles, state media agency TASS reported in July 2020. The Marker combat drones, which resemble tanks scaled down to the size of normal cars, are designed to go onto battlefields with humans and take orders the same way. Russia’s National Center for Development of Technologies and Basic Elements of Robotics is now working on the voice AI that will be embedded in the Marker. As the AI platform develops, the developers hope it will be able to combine commands with what is happening around it to make decisions.
Right now, the controller can’t be further than about three miles away when giving orders, but the engineers want to increase that distance a hundredfold. Eventually, the drone is supposed to work out its own travel route and where it wants to go using airborne reconnaissance drones it will launch as it moves. Though the voice control is new, Russia has been working on UGVs for a few years, including deploying them in Syria, but they haven’t been a major part of Russian military actions.
Voice technology has advanced enormously in the last few years and no doubt militaries all over the world are experimenting with it quietly, but it feels far-fetched to think any military is ready to risk missions and lives on voice tech. Voice assistants still regularly mishear commands, and loud environments, like a battlefield, make it much worse. But Russia does seem keen on the idea.
Kalashnikov developing AI autonomous technologies for killer robots
Russian arms manufacturer Kalashnikov has announced it will launch a range of autonomous combat drones which will use artificial intelligence to identify targets and make decisions on their own. The company released images of one of the combat robots, showing it will have some of Kalashnikov’s PK series of machine guns mounted on top. “In the nearest future we plan to unveil a whole line of neural network based products. A fully automated combat module based on that technology is to be unveiled during the ARMY-2017 forum,” communications director of Kalashnikov Sofiya Ivanova told the state-run Tass news agency.
Neural networks are computer systems modeled on the human brain and are designed to learn from past inputs, meaning they get smarter the more information they consume. They have been deployed in military applications for well over a decade, but their integration has so far been focused on areas like target recognition, infrastructure mapping, search-and-rescue missions, and aid delivery.
According to Ivanova, the neural network technology being deployed will enable the machines to identify targets and make decisions on their own — raising the possibility that unlike current drones, which feature some autonomous functions but still require human operation, these machines could operate entirely independently.
References and Resources also include: