Next generation Autonomous Unmanned Systems
In April 2009, the DoD updated its Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, an official document that projects the evolution and transition of unmanned system technology over the next 25 years.
This document forecasts the future of military robot capabilities, incorporating a vision and strategy for developing unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned maritime systems (UMSs) through the year 2034.
In its roadmap, the DoD expects the proliferation of autonomous robots that are designed to protect troops from dangerous scenarios, performing necessary missions like search and inspection, mine clearance and neutralization, and sophisticated ordnance disposal.
To date, the DoD estimates UGVs have conducted more than 30,000 missions, during which robots have detected and/or neutralized more than 15,000 improvised explosive devices (IEDs), saving thousands of military and civilian lives.
Robotic search and inspection missions have also taken to the skies and seas, with robots like Boston Engineering’s Ghostswimmer (Figure 1, below), a UMS that autonomously navigates underwater, gathers surveillance and detects potential hazards under the disguise of a tuna fish.
|Figure 1: Robots like Boston Engineering’s Ghostswimmer can gather surveillance where humans cannot and are immune to fatigue, sleep-deprivation, lack of visibility and other performance hindering conditions.|
Robots will also enhance search and rescue missions, delivering aid and supplies where human intervention cannot reach. MESA’s Element robot (Figure 2, below), for instance, is a treaded UGV designed to navigate through rugged terrain and operate in extreme weather conditions, with payload and towing capacities exceeding 3 times is weight.
The Switchblade robot, from University of California San Diego, is a smaller robot designed to negotiate more urban terrains, with sophisticated dexterity that allows it to make maneuvers like balancing on a point and climbing stairs.
|Figure 2 : Military search and rescue robots, like MESA Robotics’ Element, can deliver aid and supplies where human intervention cannot reach. ( Courtesy of Mesa Robotics|
The DoD also expects robots to assist with logistical tasks, performing duties that are dull and/or dirty, like munitions and material handling. Maintenance functions, such as inspection, decontamination, and refueling, will be alleviated by unmanned systems, thus freeing manned resources.
Perhaps the logistical task that autonomous systems will become most pervasive in during the coming years is transportation of supplies, especially in the ground domain.
Current examples include Multi-function Utility/Logistics and Equipment (MULE) robots that carry payloads across various terrains. Additionally, today’s remote-controlled humvees serve as scout vehicles in convoys. The DoD predicts fully autonomous convoys to exist by 2034.