Over the next quarter of a century, the US Pentagon sees robots becoming more and more a part of military life with robot warplanes, submersibles, and infantry vehicles taking their place on the battlefields of the future. It may conjure up a very flashy vision of Transformer-like killing machines, but the US Army sees the first robots as autonomous vehicles used in the more prosaic task of delivering groceries and other supplies.

For all the cost of ships, planes, armor, and weapon systems, manpower is the single greatest expense in modern, industrialized armed forces. Aside from costs like pay, training, and pensions, soldiers also need equipment, clothing, food, shelter, medical care, recreation, and the logistical infrastructure to supply them. In addition, it costs more to carry out many tasks in a military setting because there are different rules. Army drivers, for example, cost more money than their civilian counterparts because military vehicles need an assistant driver to avoid mishaps – and civilian drivers back home don’t have to worry about IEDs.

It’s small wonder, therefore, that the US Army is keen on robots to handle the supply lines. In May, the Army carried out a test at the US Department of Energy's Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where it ran an unmanned convoy of seven different tactical vehicles driving at over 40 mph (64 km/h). This wasn't a one-off, either. A second test with soldiers and marines is scheduled for August.

The test was part of the US Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC)'s 30-Year Ground Vehicle Strategy, which sees man-optional lorries as commonplace, with many vehicles completely driverless. According to TARDEC director Dr. Paul D Rogers, the purpose of this program isn’t to merely replace people. That would be relatively easy. Instead, it’s meant as a force multiplier to make each soldier more effective by handing over logistical and routine tasks to robots, freeing up more personnel to concentrate on warfighting tasks.

For an autonomous vehicle to be practical, it needs situational awareness even in low-visibility conditions, as well as systems for detecting obstacles, avoiding collisions, as well as warning if the vehicle is wandering out of its lane, or is in danger of tipping over. Developing these technologies relies very heavily on the work being done by car makers.

It’s no coincidence that the Pentagon is looking at robotic vehicles at the same time as the automotive makers are developing self-driving cars. The Army points out that if the defense industry were required to develop these new technologies out of whole cloth, the cost would be too much for the taxpayer. Commercial car makers have the advantages of economies of scale for vehicles designed to last years instead of decades, however, so the military can take the civilian designs and adapt them accordingly.

The Army believes that that the technology for autonomous vehicles may be ready for the field by 2025. The current program revolves around two kits designed for flexibility, because the Army sees the new autonomous vehicles as disruptive and requiring a great deal of reform in terms of how the military operates if they’re to succeed.

The first is an “autonomy kit” based on Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) and other sensors. It’s similar to that of Google’s self-driving cars, though the Army says that the two programs aren't related. The kit’s function is to map out the road ahead and keep the vehicle on the right course without hitting anything. The other kit is "by-wire drive," which deals with the actual driving by controlling the throttle, brakes, and steering.

To accommodate this new technology, the US Army Training and Doctrine Command is looking at military doctrine, tactics and training, so these robotic systems can help fulfill strategic and tactical objectives. The ultimate hope of the Army is to move beyond simple transports, and TARDEC looks forward to a time when troop carriers and tanks will be man-optional as well. In one experiment, the program hopes in 20 years to control four unmanned Abrams tanks from four manned ones – much as a video game player can control simulated squadmates.

Another idea is to develop robots as companions to help soldiers in the field the same way as mules, horses, dogs, and even dolphins do at present. Toward this end, TARDEC is interested in unmanned ground vehicles and helicopters that can work in dangerous areas contaminated by nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, or by taking up the burden of soldiers, so hauling giant packs isn’t a way of daily life.

In order to get the world from a single convoy of autonomous vehicles to one of robotic squaddies, TARDEC has instituted its Applied Robotics for Installations and Base Operation (ARIBO), which aims at finding immediate applications for robotic technologies. The program will utilize existing Army installations as testing grounds, such as Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where autonomous vehicles are used to transport wounded soldiers, and at the US Military Academy and Stanford University, where such vehicles are used for transport from distant parking areas. Eventually, they’ll also be used as food and ammunition transports.

Source: US Army