First, it needs stating that I don’t believe remote control systems can ever entirely replace ‘boots on the ground’ and they should not be viewed as a method by which to do this.
But what they are good at is removing personnel from danger, and in doing so can change the rules under which they operate. This is not referring to any offensive capability, but rather the changes possible in platform or system design & capability.
A key example of this could be the reduction of necessary armour. This weight reduction could lead to decreased power and transmission requirements and cost (through life), increased mobility (strategic and tactical), payload, range, and the list goes on.
This sounds too good to be true, and it probably is if you require high levels of situational awareness and a rapid response to a changing environment.
But more about that later.
Definitions – Levels of Autonomy
There are many definitions of the levels of autonomy that can be used to describe systems, but they are perhaps best broken down into four main categories, although there will be ‘grey areas’ between them.
- Information only – the system will provide a person with information to aid his task (for example a Satellite Navigation system in a car) but otherwise has no control over the physical world.
- Teleoperation – the system reacts directly to a set of human inputs
- Semi-Autonomous operation – the system can perform ‘basic’ tasks on its own (such as the recent self-parallel-parking cars)
- Fully Autonomous – the system is given a mission to perform and does not need any further human input
Remote controlled military vehicles aren’t new.
Notable examples would be the Soviet Teletank and the German Goliath tracked mine (both around or before WW2), but arguably neither of these was a resounding success.
Several decades later, in 1972 remote control entered the mainstream EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) world with the first Wheelbarrow vehicle (so named as it was based on an electric wheelbarrow chassis); since then these ‘robots’ have been phenomenally successful in their EOD role conservatively saving hundreds of lives around the world. Larger platforms have proven useful in recent years, with specific mention of the Israeli remote control Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer (used in an anti-IED or combat engineering role) and the recently in-service UK Terrier, along with the UK’s Panama Snatch vehicles (which have been well covered by previous ThinkDefence posts).[browser-shot width=”600″ url=”https://www.thinkdefence.co.uk/2012/07/ieds-mines-route-clearance-and-talisman/”]
And of course the MineWolf family of vehicles that are in service globally dealing with mine clearance.
Recent programmes and Research
There are a number of projects running or that have run regarding the use of autonomous vehicles in the military domain, mostly centring around supporting a squad of infantry either by acting as a bag-carrier, a resupply or medevac platform or in limited cases as fire support.
The US has been particularly keen on the idea (most if not all of the UK programmes have stalled somewhat) with the Lockheed Martin MULE (Multifunctional Utility/Logistics and Equipment) briefly kept alive after the demise of FCS, the Lockheed Martin SMSS (Squad Mission Support System) which is similar to the UK/AUS BAE Systems MOATV (Multi-Operated All-Terrain Vehicle), and the Boston Dynamics BigDog (apparently destined for the LSSS or Legged Squad Support System).
Going up in size we have the G-NIUS Guardium (a security/patrol UGV), the Gladiator (a sort of multipurpose UGV) and some classed as UCVs (Unmanned Combat Vehicles) such as the BAE Systems ‘Black Knight’ and the General Dynamics unmanned Stryker.
There also seems to be a shift from military programmes to civilian/university (or even ‘hobby’) programmes, with DARPA and their series of ‘Grand Challenges’ leading the way.
The UK MoD copied this approach with their own Grand Challenge in 2008 with, in my opinion, a disappointing follow-on in terms of industry engagement with the technology. The US have also tried to create an unmanned vehicle control standard, called JAUS (Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems) which appears to be used sparingly outside of educational facilities (perhaps due to the complexities of applying this to complicated systems, or alternately because the manufacturers of military equipment would rather use proprietary protocols that protect their research and investment!).
However, as far as I am aware, none of these programmes have made it past trials (sometimes advanced trials) for a variety of reasons.
Generally these systems can be made to work quite well in a controlled environment but struggle to react to the variety of conditions that they are expected to face. Terrain is an obvious example, with a trained driver instinctively knowing how best to approach and cross obstacles and what to do in the case of unexpected behaviour.
There are exceptions, of course, and the controlling systems and software are getting better, but at the moment and in the foreseeable future I think a good human operator has the edge.
A remote controlling system will always have an inherent delay (or latency) between sending any command and the system acting upon it, making anything that is time-dependent such as laying on a moving target or dodging other moving vehicles much more difficult.
This delay increases with increasing levels of security/encryption and to an extent distance between the platform and controller (which is why Satellite communications have a very noticeable delay). Interestingly the digital video systems (see DEFSTAN 00-82) part of the GVA (Generic Vehicle Architecture) being implemented on new platforms such as FRES also suffer from inherent latency, which is why even the latest vehicles are still equipped with vision blocks/periscopes (and as a backup in case the vision systems fail).
Of all the remote control vehicles mentioned (and there are dozens of others that I haven’t) there doesn’t appear to be any real bias towards converting an existing vehicle or creating a new one. Indeed with few exceptions, all have the capability for either a human or a remote operator. In doing so, they are sacrificing a huge amount of potential as the vehicle will be optimised for neither.
A previous comment to a post I read asked how difficult it would be to convert other vehicles, such as Warrior.
The answer is that it is exceptionally easy (especially with Warrior with the way it is controlled – I’d guess we could have it working reliably within a week) to drive it remotely (although you have to consider other factors such as control of the turret, especially loading of the RARDEN, and camera placement) but why would you want to?
Warrior was designed to carry troops under armour.
The future (open to interpretation/discussion)
So where does the future of remote controlled platforms lie?
I for one do not believe that autonomy for land systems is a likely goal for the next few decades or so, rather that teleoperated or semi-autonomous systems in specific roles are much more likely to be accepted into service.
Their primary reason should always be to keep humans out of dangerous environments wherever possible but other advantages including a lower base and through-life cost, or a personnel reduction may well prove a greater incentive. Areas of interest we’re looking into now are mine and IED clearing, convoying, reconnaissance & patrolling, communications relaying, search & rescue, recovery, resupply and a host of non-military applications including mines rescue and agriculture. We’re also focusing on using COTS equipment where suitable, which makes any platform or system at least two orders of magnitude cheaper than would currently be required, which, given the emphasis on budget cuts and the ability of the enemy to take out a £4m vehicle with a £100 RPG or mine is not to be underestimated.
To me, though, the key thing I consider is that the best way to stop a soldier being killed by an IED or a bullet is not to have them there in the first place wherever possible.