Autonomous aerial vehicles have made headlines since the start of the Ukraine war, with commercial drones changing tactics almost overnight. Given this transformation, policymakers are calling for a renewed focus on autonomy on the ground.
The U.S. Department of Defense is at an important juncture as it thinks creatively and ambitiously on how to leverage this critical new technology at scale for strategic advantage.
The last decade has seen significant technological progress on the ground. An AI-driven revolution is currently underway on American roadways, with important implications for both our economic competitiveness and our national security. After many years and billions of dollars of private sector R&D, autonomous vehicles have arrived.
While autonomous technology will soon begin to fundamentally change the way goods and people move, its impact may soon reach far beyond American roadways. AVs will change the strategy for modern ground warfare while saving lives and keeping our service members out of many dangerous situations.
For years, the U.S. Army has experimented with autonomous ground operations, in which a human-driven leader vehicle would chart a path for one or more autonomous follower vehicles. While the “Leader-Follower” approach frees up manpower and reduces potential human casualties, it also makes leader trucks high-value targets; disabling a single lead vehicle could potentially put an entire convoy at risk.
While the technology developed for “Leader-Follower” was a major innovation, in the past five years American commercial autonomy developers have leapfrogged the many DoD-funded efforts. Passengers can now hail driverless taxis in multiple cities and developers are planning to deploy the first driverless trucks next year — no “leader” vehicle is required.
While these vehicles are not yet as resourceful as human drivers, they are programmed to come to a safe stop, pull over, return to base, or even call for a human to offer remote assistance.
Encouraged by this progress, the Defense Innovation Unit, in partnership with the Army, piloted a program in 2022 to leverage commercial autonomous solutions to make the Robot Combat Vehicle fully autonomous. Through this defense acquisition approach, DoD reaps the benefits of continuous software improvements being learned on U.S. roads every day, while de-risking its technological investments and ensuring solutions are being developed and integrated at the speed of relevance.
The Army continues to think through the best use cases that leverage AVs for high-risk missions such as re-supply, reconnaissance support, casualty evacuation, route clearance, and explosive ordnance disposal. Using human-robot teams offers a solution to an enduring challenge for ground forces — building mass to leverage as a force multiplier. Allowing each soldier to control a small fleet of ground and air systems has the potential to address this challenge, exponentially increasing the capability and flexibility of deployed forces.
Human-robot teams will offer additional capabilities beyond what humans can do alone. Low-cost, attritable autonomous systems can overwhelm adversarial forces by saturating an operational area to force an adversary to move, be detected, or be targeted. They may be able to employ deception to confuse the adversary’s operational picture by making it difficult to differentiate real targets from decoys.
Ground vehicles could also be outfitted with ISR assets and short-range air and missile defense systems and driven autonomously to forward deployed positions to provide better situational awareness, planning, lethality, decision support, and more dispersed and enhanced protection for soldiers in theater.
Re-imagining Army acquisition
However, to fully harness this burgeoning technology and take advantage of the tremendous progress in the commercial sector, the Army should re-imagine its acquisition strategies and be open to new concepts of operations. While Ukraine has understandably caused the Army to double down on its existing focus on resiliency and lethality to better prepare for a high-intensity conflict, it should also be thinking critically about how to inject redundancy, flexibility and adaptability into force structure through autonomous systems.
A common myth in defense circles is that commercial industry can only function with fixed infrastructure, well-mapped roads, and structured environments. The reality is that American highways are incredibly unpredictable environments, on par with what Army vehicles must contend with.
The millions of autonomous miles of public road driving these companies have completed gives them a significant advantage as they adapt their mature systems to make meaningful progress in complex environments, off-road, and without a human driver in the vehicle. Companies that are operating commercially will deliver an autonomous solution to the military faster; they have moved beyond science experiments and lab demonstrations to developing and delivering a product.
When it comes to adopting ground autonomy at scale, the U.S. military needs to think ambitiously about how to leverage the advances of the commercial sector for a meaningful strategic advantage for the troops.
Don Burnette is the founder & CEO of Kodiak Robotics, a Mountain View, California-based supplier of autonomous vehicle technology. Lt. Gen. Joe Anderson (ret.) is a former Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army.