In 2020, scientists from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) carried out an experiment to see how humans and a new generation of smart machines can work together to change military operations. This most recent test was part of a decade-long annual testing regime known as the Army Warfighting Experiment (AWE). Here, Roger Brereton head of sales at military steering system specialist, Pailton Engineering, explains how projects like this will help the military vehicle industry get over the technical and ethical hurdles it currently faces.
Last year’s AWE focused specifically on technologies in the agile command, control and communication space. The goal was to help the Army identify how it can best increase awareness of battlefield surroundings, improve communications on the move, deploy more effectively and increase survival in combat. More broadly however, industry, academics and the military are coming together to develop and provide feedback on technology in key areas such as artificial intelligence, cyber intelligence, remotely piloted air technology and autonomous vehicles.
While the commercial automotive world is fully embracing autonomous technologies, the same doesn’t ring true for the military sector. The technology to make an army vehicle fully autonomous doesn't yet exist, although the potential benefits have been modelled in various studies.
For example, a study by RAND investigated three different autonomous vehicle concepts: the fully autonomous employment concept, the partially unmanned employment concept, involving a lead truck with soldiers followed by a convoy of unmanned vehicles and a minimally manned concept, with a soldier in the driver’s seat of each of the following trucks, to monitor the system.
The study concluded that a minimally manned army convoy put 28 per cent fewer US soldiers at risk compared to current practices. A partially unmanned convoy would put 37 per cent fewer soldiers at risk, and a fully autonomous convoy would put 78 per cent fewer soldiers at risk.
While the advantages for personnel safety are clear, autonomous military vehicles bring about various technical challenges which must be addressed. For example, ensuring that command links are properly encrypted to ensure that enemy forces do not hijack robotic vehicles.
In addition, experiments have largely been carried out on roads in urban environments, not taking into account the wide range of landscapes that may be encountered in warfare. Humans are still required to monitor the driving environment and regain control when the autonomous systems are unable to handle the situation.
Introducing weapon systems into autonomous and robotic platforms is another area that needs careful consideration. The Pentagon’s policy is that a human remains “in the loop” at all times when weapon systems are fired. Artificial intelligence will no doubt play a role in creating more accurate algorithms that enable a computational device to learn from its environment and use facial recognition to determine civilians from a possible enemy. However, ethical dilemmas still exist.
While military vehicle design is clearly evolving, we’re unlikely to see fully autonomous military vehicles anytime soon. However, as experiments have demonstrated, innovative autonomous vehicle concepts, such as more computing power and sensing technologies will provide the ability to automate processes like convoy operations, changing the face of military missions and have the potential to provide clear advantages for personnel safety.
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