Before a howitzer can fire a shell, a series of humans have to put it in place. For all the advancements made from early cannons to modern artillery, it is still humans that do the transportation, lifting, loading and launching of the explosives. The Army is looking to automate more of this process.
Through the Field Artillery Autonomous Resupply (FAAR) cohort, the Army is looking to change how resupply happens from the Battalion Supply Area forward to the artillery crew. This process leaves intact existing supply chains that develop and make the munitions, instead focusing just on how those munitions can get from their in-country warehouse to where they’re most immediately needed.
“The way artillery is resupplied has not changed much in the last 40 years,” said Chris Isch, an artillery officer working in long-range precision fires. “This is a physically demanding task and can be time-consuming. What’s more, all along the way, soldiers must maintain paper inventory sheets to track the number and types of rounds. “
From the battalion supply area, ammunition is brought in pallets on the back of a specialized flatbed truck, where the flatbed is removable. Working from the detached flatbed, soldiers take the ammunition out of its packaging and load it into the dedicated transport, a M992A3 Carrier Ammunition Tracked (CAT). The CAT drives to where the artillery is set up, and then soldiers individually lift all 40 or so artillery projectiles from the CAT into the artillery piece, specifically a M109A7 Self Propelled Howitzer, alongside the relevant charges and fuses.
Those projectiles weigh 97 lbs. apiece. Militaries have explored powered exoskeletons for soldiers as one way to make that load a little more manageable for humans. Another way is to simply have robots do that.
“This entire process is both manual and labor intensive, so we are exploring ways to optimize and automate it,” said Isch.
The FAAR cohort is looking to multiple contractors to provide a range of technological solutions for handling the various steps in the artillery resupply process. Neya Systems, a division of Applied Research Associates, has experience in off-road autonomy, and in January 2019 was announced a contractor on the project. Their contribution will focus largely on getting the CAT from the palette to the guns.
“The fact that explosives will be transported is not necessarily relevant to our technology or the solutions we can offer as part of the cohort,” said Tamir Klaff of Neya Systems. “We have several different technologies that are applicable to the Field Artillery Ammunition Resupply problem, including the ability to travel between off-road locations without any prior map or knowledge of the terrain or vegetation between those locations.”
Before any vehicles can autonomous transport explosives, and before robots can autonomous load artillery rounds and propellant and fuses into self-propelled howitzers, the Army will review the design briefs, and see how to proceed.
“On April 1, the six companies will present their concept design briefs to the Long-Range Precision Fires Cross-Functional Team,” said Porter Orr, director of product innovation at the Army Applications Laboratory. “From there, [that team] has the option to develop requirements that could be competed to build a proof of technology demonstrator with the option for future development and production.”
If the concepts match what the army needs, then it can figure out the next steps of automating its FAAR-reaching fires. No fooling around.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.