Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have been a consistent feature of military operations since the start of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s. Thousands of UGVs were deployed during these conflicts predominantly to perform explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and counter-improvised explosive device (C-IED) operations.
However, the ending of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the simultaneous advancement in UGV technologies and concepts over the past several years have combined to generate a spike in interest in the expansion of UGV applications across defence, security and emergency response operations.
Discussion of future UGV applications has focused on three broad mission categories.
First, UGVs will provide enhanced situational awareness in close-contact, contested, contaminated (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE)), degraded, or urban environments or along extended or contested boundaries. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) operate the Guardium UGV, a large, unarmed UGV, along the tense Israeli border with Gaza. The Guardium is highly mobile and equipped with 360° cameras, which allow it to effectively surveil large areas of the border far better than stationary cameras or individual soldiers.
Reducing the physical burden of personnel is a second broad mission category. UGVs will be increasingly employed to transport weapons, ammunition, equipment, food, water, shelters and medical supplies to support dismounted personnel, including those engaged in manoeuvre warfare. Balancing platform and payload safety, size and weight on these typically larger UGVs with the requirement to be able to operate on paved urban environments and much more rugged terrain will be a concern.
Larger systems unable to handle difficult terrain could injure dismounted forces.
The third broad mission area is to keep military and security personnel at a safe stand-off distance from a given threat, be it hostile forces, harsh weather, fire or IEDs. EOD and C-IED operations will be central to this mission area, and end-users will continue to procure EOD UGVs, just as Poland’s Armament Inspectorate did last month with the procurement of 53 Balsa light reconnaissance and EOD vehicles from Warsaw-based PIAP.
However, several states – including Russia, China, the USA, the UK, Taiwan, Estonia and Iran – are developing UGVs teleoperated by humans, but equipped with remote weapon stations (RWSs) to serve in combat operation roles. Singapore Technologies Kinetics unveiled the Jaeger family of UGVs at the Singapore Air Show in February 2016, including a weaponised vehicle featuring a stabilised RWS armed with a 7.62mm machine gun. A non-line-of-sight missile launcher-equipped vehicle is also envisioned, according to IHS Jane’s.
Other combat-focused applications envisioned for UGVs include serving as sentries or perimeter patrols – the Russian government announced plans in March 2014 to deploy armed UGVs to protect ballistic missile facilities – and as advanced forces to draw fire from hidden hostile forces and support target acquisition. UGVs can also be effective in reducing risks to humans in meeting subterranean or non-traditional threats. Israel has already deployed UGVs – including Roboteam’s Micro Tactical Ground Robot – to assist in surveillance of Hamas tunnels.
Modularity and configurability
Increased modularity and configurability of systems is required for UGVs to effectively support this growing list of missions in a cost-effective manner. Therefore, industry is emphasising the incorporation of modular chassis on which several mission-specific payloads can be configured to carry out a range of functions.
Meteor Aerospace’s Rambow UGV programme provides a useful example of this growing focus on multi-use UGV configurability. The 3.5 tonne platform “features a cargo compartment at the rear that can be fitted with a mission-specific payload”, according to IHS Jane’s. Meteor has developed options for logistics, medical evacuation and missile launcher configurations.
Similarly, Estonian UGV manufacturer Milrem introduced its Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System (THeMIS) at the Singapore Air Show in February 2016. The base platform has a large central bay and modular architecture that allows it to be equipped with an array of payloads in order to carry out more than a dozen missions, depending on the payload configuration it is carrying.
UGV technology has made steady and significant strides in the past several years, but incremental and, in some cases, transformational advancements are still required to better optimise UGV impacts across the range of envisioned applications.
As with most unmanned systems, increased autonomy tops the list of technology development priority areas.
Current systems use varying combinations of remote human teleoperation and sufficient autonomy for the systems to follow pre-defined routes, automatically detecting and avoiding obstacles along that route. Visions for future UGV applications will require the development of more powerful autonomy technologies, starting in the near term with refinement of leader-follower technologies and progressing all the way to machine learning to reduce the cognitive burden on operators, enhance efficiency of machine-human interactions, and enable more advanced operations, such as manned and unmanned teaming.
Other key technology focus areas include the enhancement of high-mobility and all-terrain attributes; continued development of powertrain technologies to support increased endurance; position, navigation and timing technologies that do not rely on space-based signals; secure communications; automatic target tracking; and swarming.
From technology to capability
At the Xponential 2016 exhibition last month, Stuart Hatfield, the robotics chief for the US Army G-8 (headquarters office for plans and resources), gave a talk in which he noted that the Army’s funding for ground robotics had tripled from USD290 million in the FY14-18 five-year funding plan to USD900 million in the FY17-21 plan. According to Hatfield, the future of UGVs in the US Army is “not about a lack of resources right now… [but rather the] requirements, technology and funding all have to come together at the right time”.
Ensuring this alignment within defence and security communities throughout the world will not be easy.
Momentum is building for UGVs, but risks to the pace and trajectory of their development and use remain. Refining technologies and operational concepts, especially those that will enable more efficient human-machine interactions; building supporting infrastructure, organisational structures and culture; and developing the legislative and legal policies to assuage concerns about autonomous ‘killer robots’, for example, constitute a partial list of actions required to accelerate UGVs’ move along the path from novel technology to innovative and affecting capability.