UGV technology transforms manned vehicles into unmanned, beefs up autonomous operation while maintaining original payload

In this Q&A with John Bryant and John Beck of Oshkosh Defense, Military Embedded Systems learns about the UGV tech TerraMax and its LIDAR perception system, as well as how advanced technologies such as machine learning are affecting the curve in the next half decade of the unmanned systems market.

2Editor’s note: With IEDs and other threats historically pervasive on the front lines now endangering the more reclusive resupply convoys (think: Jessica Lynch), Oshkosh Defense is developing its TerraMax Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV) technology, which aims to remove some of the drivers within a convoy, while providing situational awareness via an advanced “perception” system comprising Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) cameras and radar. Meanwhile, the Marines have been assessing and performing live force experiments on this machine-learning-enabled technology. The next stop: A live force experiment at Fort Pickett, including veteran Marines training this July. Managing Editor Sharon Hess recently interviewed John Bryant and John Beck to get an insider’s perspective of both TerraMax and the UGV market. Edited excerpts follow.

Tell me briefly about your company – where it’s located, number of employees, markets you serve, and what you’re supplying to the military.

BRYANT: Oshkosh Defense is located in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and has more than 4,000 employees. Oshkosh started in 1917 as a pioneer in four-wheel drive technology and off-road vehicles. Our technology focus is rugged, off-road tactical wheeled vehicles. We provide the lion’s share of heavy, medium, and MRAP All-Terrain Vehicles for the Army, Marine Corps, and our joint customer. We have provided over 8,500 MRAP All-Terrain Vehicles through the Joint Program Office. We also provide to tactical wheeled customers worldwide.

To whom are you supplying unmanned vehicle technologies, and of which types?

BRYANT: Our TerraMax Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV) technology can help protect warfighters from threats like IEDs by actually removing certain drivers from a vehicle entirely within a convoy. Right now on today’s battlefield, IEDs are one of the greatest threats to military personnel. And in Afghanistan, for example, the front lines have blurred and troops carrying out logistics missions – particularly troops in convoys – are exposed to dangers that were previously contained only in active battle zones amongst frontline combatant forces. So we have worked closely with the government since 2003 to demonstrate fieldable, state-of-the-art autonomous kit systems [to enable unmanned vehicle operation] and to [thereby] develop the tactics, techniques, and procedures to provide a less perilous means for DoD to support and resupply troops in theater.

TerraMax is designed for use on any fielded tactical wheeled vehicle, Oshkosh or otherwise, and can operate for extended periods of time; they don’t get tired, they don’t lose situational awareness – the types of things that can afflict human operators.

Tell me about the government programs you’ve worked on.

BRYANT: So as DoD and its research strategic defense review call for continued reliance on new technologies including unmanned systems, the Cargo UGV [program] supports that. It is sponsored by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and the Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise Robotics Technology Consortium. That was a program that began in 2010 to demonstrate the ability to integrate the TerraMax autonomous system into an MTVR – a tactical vehicle capable of hauling a 7-ton payload cross-country.

What was the goal of the program?

BRYANT: The goal was really to determine the feasibility of reducing the exposure of Marines to lethal attacks by replacing some of the manned vehicles in logistics convoys with unmanned vehicles and to assess the feasibility of having our vehicles act as a resupply multiplier through one-to-many operator control. We’ve tested this by participating in experiments to assess the feasibility to assimilate our TerraMax UGVs into a supply distribution system in the tactical environment. In 2011 we conducted our first-ever training for Marines on the system. They found it to be very user friendly; they support its further development and provided valuable feedback, and that program is ongoing right now. It completed its first limited technical assessment in May 2011 and a second limited assessment again in August 2011.

What kind of system is it though? Is it just a remote control system, or is it a sensor system?

BECK: It has transformed over the years. It started off in the DARPA Challenge days; the TerraMax kit is basically the computing hardware, sensing hardware, and interfaces to the vehicle to allow unmanned operation, along with a lot of sophisticated software. Basically you provide a map it can drive on. Within that map exist checkpoints that the vehicle needs to achieve. It then drives autonomously to those checkpoints and stops at the last checkpoint, while avoiding obstacles and obeying traffic laws.

You said your system is for situational awareness, to spot IEDs. How does it do that?

BECK: It itself does not determine whether something is a threat or not. We have a very advanced perception system on it that consists of sensors like LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), radar, and cameras. We bring all of those sensors’ outputs into specific software modules that then process that data and fuse it together to get a good understanding of the environment that the robot is operating in. It understands where the road ends; it understands what vegetation is versus what’s a rock, what’s dust, and so on.

Dust is a particular challenge for sensing and can show up in two different ways: first, as an obstacle if you get returns from the LIDAR, but dust can also absorb the LIDAR energy, indicating that there is nothing there. By fusing the radar information with the LIDAR information, we are able to reduce those false positives and false negatives and maintain safe operation.

So is whatever the LIDAR and radar are sending being viewed by human operators in real-time then, remotely?

BECK: The operator gets a condensed version of that. Most of the perception system is used for guidance of the robot and robotics operation, and that amount of data is really too much information to send over a wireless link to an operator control station. So we condense that down into what we call a cost map that presents hazards for the vehicle to an operator. So trees, for instance, are a hazard, as are other vehicles. Some potholes and small bumps and rocks aren’t necessarily costly, but at the same time if you can avoid them and do it safely, then the vehicle will tend to do that. Same with pedestrians, which are, of course, the highest cost.

For situational awareness … additional cameras are used by the operator. So the operator (who can be up to a kilometer away) can view through the windshield of the vehicle or around the sides of the vehicle to understand the situation that the vehicle is in or gather additional intel.

BRYANT: So if you could get a picture, the picture would be a convoy operating whereby a number of the vehicles in the convoy don’t have operators at all [because] the TerraMax UGV system allows unmanned vehicles to operate in the convoy. So the vehicles can drive along a route but at the same time an operator can monitor how they are operating and he can intercede as he sees fit.

BECK: For instance, if there is a situation where all of a sudden the terrain turns from dusty hard-pack sort of soil into deep mud, the operator has the ability to set the drive line locks, and adjust the central tire inflation system just like [a Marine or soldier] would normally do if he was driving the vehicle by himself. Also, if it’s known that there is an area that’s rocky terrain or another area that is sandy terrain, [the operator] can lay down these specific zones on the map ahead of time while he is planning the mission, and the vehicle will automatically change into those different modes.

Are these to carry supplies basically and to give a false impression of military soldier presence as they’re providing situational awareness?

BRYANT: TerraMax isn’t trying to create a false convoy; it’s actually to remove operators from a significant number of vehicles within the convoy, particularly those vehicles that are in, I might say, historically dangerous positions.

BECK: [Another advantage] is the ability to have one operator control multiple assets, which reduces the force. And so what we are working on with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise Robotics Technology Consortium is to understand what is the right ratio of unmanned assets to manned assets in these convoy scenarios. These convoys aren’t going to run unprotected, so you’re always going to have somebody in a protected vehicle like an M-ATV to protect the convoy. But at the same time we want to mitigate any injuries or casualties due to attack and to take advantage of the ability to have one-to-many control.

“One-to-many control” was mentioned earlier, too. What does that mean?

BECK: One operator can supervise more than one unmanned vehicle. Last July we trained six veteran Marines on the operation of the TerraMax system over the period of about eight days and ran through many different scenarios. After two days of classroom training and practice applications on the vehicles, they were convinced that they could control three to five vehicles.

Since that time, we have built one more Cargo Unmanned Ground Vehicle, so we now have two operating from a single operator control unit in a separate MTVR. And the experiment [at Fort Pickett] that [happens in] July will be a much larger experiment. We will again train a veteran group of Marines on the use of the system over a two- to three-day period and then they will be using this system in live force experiments performing logistics missions.

What kind of hardware or software exactly does your UGV system have?

BECK: All the hardware that we use is mil-grade hardware. We do use some automotive-grade sensors, radars, and those types of things. The software is application specific.

There aren’t any off-the-shelf types of software used? The automotive is off-the-shelf?

BRYANT: Many of the key technologies within [our] system are off-the-shelf sensor technologies, but the entire system has to be able to operate in military profiles; therefore, we have integrated off-the-shelf sensor technologies with a hardware and software control solution and hardened it so that the entire system provides that autonomous capability. So it’s not as simple as simply taking off-the-shelf technology and hanging it on a vehicle; it’s an integration and a hardening process that has produced a very robust system that can handle the demands and environments required by our military customer.

You mentioned earlier that TerraMax operates for extended periods of time?

BECK: Yes, currently the system is designed to run for at least six hours. The limitation is the amount of [full-motion] video storage that we have onboard. In reality, the operation could run for a full tank of fuel, which could be any amount of time, depending on the mission profile.

Are the cameras hidden or on the exterior of the vehicles?

BECK: All of the proprioceptive sensors are mounted external to the vehicle. We go to lengths to make sure that the kit is hidden into the vehicle bodywork as much as possible because we don’t want these vehicles to look any different from any other military vehicle.

Let’s talk about payload issues. What is the biggest payload issue? Is it the size, weight, and power? Is it the radar? Ruggedization? Cargo?

BRYANT: [We’re in] a different situation than is faced by UGV developers of very small systems. Where size, weight, and power are significant challenges in the very small systems, our TerraMax technology has no significant impact whatsoever on the payload of a vehicle that is designed to carry a 7-ton payload, which still carries a 7-ton payload in addition to [our] integrated capabilities.

How much room does the TerraMax system take up though? Is it a big system?

BRYANT: In terms of the space, really just think about small sensors at different points on the vehicle that are pretty well hidden into the body and cab of the vehicle, and a computer. That’s basically what we have claiming space.

What are the challenges in the unmanned systems market?

BRYANT: We’re continually watching the evolution of technology, watching the changes in the threat and rapid development cycles to be able to quickly field a mature robust solution for the next increment of capability.

BECK: Also, one of the challenges is testing these autonomous systems. Our systems use advanced machine learning, and it is very common for a [testing agency] to design specific, repeatable tests, and that is a challenge on the community side … when you [develop] a machine that can decide to do something. It’s hard to have a hard-and-fast test for every possible scenario, in all-weather conditions, and every possible terrain or environment.

You said “machine learning”? How does that work?

BECK: On the perception side of things, [when] we drive this vehicle around – whether manually or in autonomous mode – [we] are gathering information on different types of vegetation, different types of ground surface, different types of dust, for instance. All of these data are logged in digital format. We are able to examine these logs and hand-label different feature classes. We can extend this to any number of feature classes, limited only by computing power, and [we] can teach the robot how to interpret its environment.

What changes are coming to the unmanned market within the next five years?

BRYANT: I think two factors will work in conjunction to define the market over the next five years. One of them will be that the actual evolution of the battlefield itself will change requirements for unmanned systems in ways that are somewhat difficult to predict. And the other main factor is the rapid evolution of technology. As sensor technology improves over very quick development cycles and microprocessor technology develops over very rapid development cycles, the capabilities for unmanned systems will blossom significantly over the next five years.

What are the hardware and software trends right now in unmanned systems?

BECK: On the perception side, it’s really still where we have gone from fairly simple automotive-type sensors to more specialized sensors that provide a very rich 3-D point cloud of the environment. They are active sensors and right now you can detect one of these things from a distance; you [can] detect LIDAR painting the environment. You can also detect a radar-emitting signal; at this point, stealth isn’t terribly important, but in the future it will be. So in the future there are going to be sensing capabilities that don’t require active emission, or if they do require active emission, it is in a more stealth manner that is more difficult to be detected.

John Bryant is the Vice President and General Manager of Joint and Marine Corps Programs for Oshkosh Defense. He is responsible for the development, production, and sustainment of Oshkosh’s programs with the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as programs that span multiple branches of the U.S. military. A retired colonel, he brings a 28-year history of service with the Marine Corps to his role at Oshkosh. As a program manager, he led several acquisition programs, including Tank Systems, Light Armored Vehicles, and Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles.

John Beck is Chief Engineer of Unmanned Systems for Advanced Products for Oshkosh Defense. He has responsibility for the company’s autonomous vehicle developments and technology partners. He has led Oshkosh’s efforts to develop its TerraMax Unmanned Ground Vehicle System, working with technology partners and organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Robotics Technology Consortium, Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise, and Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.

Oshkosh Defense 920-235-9150 www.oshkoshdefense.com