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Driverless technology matures

Jun. 24, 2014
Oshkosh has demonstrated an autonomous vehicle system to steer an M-ATV vehicle.
Oshkosh has demonstrated an autonomous vehicle system to steer an M-ATV vehicle. (William Kapinski/Oshkosh)

PARIS — Oshkosh has given the first live, trade show demonstration of its TerraMax autonomous vehicle system, using it to steer an M-ATV vehicle and a mine roller round the demonstration area at Eurosatory.

After 10 years of development, teamed with the US Marines and Army, the system will be offered as a way to reduce personnel in dangerous convoys, and officials said they hoped it would be deployed within three to five years.

The US vehicle builder was not alone in using the demonstration arena to show its progress toward a production standard driverless system.

Ruag of Switzerland, with a system installed in a General Dynamics European Land Systems Eagle protected mobility vehicle, also demonstrated its capabilities on the Eurosatory track .


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Lockheed Martin didn’t have a vehicle on the test track but it briefed reporters on the increasingly complex testing it has been doing on its autonomous mobility applique system (AMAS) program for the US Marines and Army.

The system is primarily being developed to allow fully autonomous convoys to operate even in complex urban areas.

Driverless vehicles are not new. The Israelis already employ the technology on vehicles and for others Afghanistan has been a proving ground for remote systems.

Example: The British Army used a remotely controlled Land Rover rapidly developed by local company MIRA to undertake route clearance duties to combat roadside bombs.

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The technology remains in its infancy but progress is propelling it toward production in the next few years.

The Oshkosh system has already autonomously driven a vehicle 100 miles, passing a series of waypoints during a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Challenge in the US.

The system could be used in concert with manned vehicles for convoys, route clearance and missions to defeat improvised explosive devices, said John Urias, president of Oshkosh Defense.

The system uses radar, lidar, video and GPS mapping, although Oshkosh claims the system can pilot a vehicle for 18 miles without GPS, relying on inertial measurement unit technology.

Designed to pilot vehicles at a convoy speed of 35 miles per hour, the system is designed to stop the vehicle if it sees something it does not understand, at which point a remote operator can intervene. A driver can also enter the vehicle and take over the controls if required.

A spokeswoman said the system has proved easy to master. “Six Marines trained for three days, after which each one was comfortable operating three vehicles at the same time,” said Jennifer Christiansen.

The system’s autonomy gave it an advantage over remote controlled vehicles, Christiansen said.

“They are dramatically different technologies,” she said. “Autonomy brings force multiplication into the equation.”

Ruag, meanwhile, has taken a halfway house approach to autonomy compared with its US rival, and reckons what it calls “supervised autonomy” is about as far as it can currently push the technology boundaries.

“We are not there yet with full autonomy,” Vero business development manager Ferdinand Zoller said during a briefing with reporters at the show Wednesday.

But driverless systems have their Achilles’ heel. Experts say the systems could be vulnerable to asymmetric attack.

An opponent with a $5 can of spray paint or a roll of aluminum baking foil could mask sensors or even steal them, said one industry executive.

Ruag has fitted a vertical take-off UAV built by Estonian company Eli to the roof of the vehicle that can be remotely launched to give the driver additional cues and a limited reconnaissance capability.

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“While a driver can’t see round the corner with the vehicle’s cameras, he can see everything from above,” Zoller said.

The executive said Ruag had looked at using Sky Sapience’s tethered hovering reconnaissance platform to provide the driver cues and other capabilities but had no intention to integrate the Israeli developed system at this time.

The Vero system being developed by Ruag is scheduled to get its production release in 2016, Zoller told reporters.

The system is fitted to the Eagle armored vehicle but could be fitted to any number of similar vehicles.

Zoller said the company is already testing alternative vehicle applications but declined to name them. An existing vehicle could be converted within two days, he said.

Used in conjunction with Ruag software, the cameras and sensors fitted as part of the Vero system would allow any vehicle equipped with the technology to learn a route to drive or, alternatively, the route can be programmed using an interface.

The vehicle will then drive the route at the request of its operator, constantly scanning the area for obstacles and threats and relaying that information back to a control station.

The vehicle also can be operated simply using remote control.

Ruag showed the adapted Eagle’s capability on the demonstration area with a driver installed in a control room at its Eurosatory stand over half a mile from the track.

Zoller said the Vero had been tested out to a distance of 1.6 kilometers between vehicle and control room antenna but the distance could be increased by adding a relay station. ■


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