After years of exploring the technology, the Army is gearing up to turn its autonomous truck convoy demonstrations into a formal program of record.
The service has been pursuing the idea of having unmanned vehicles incorporated into its convoys for more than a decade, with the goal of reducing the number of casualties associated with ground resupply missions.
However, encouragement by Army leadership is accelerating the timeline for a leader-follower capability, Bernard Theisen, autonomous ground resupply program manager at the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, said in an interview.
Expedient leader-follower is a capability that allows for a convoy that contains one manned vehicle followed by unmanned vehicles. The initiative went to the Army Requirements Oversight Council, which decided to proceed with the capability in February 2018, he noted. After examining the technology at TARDEC, Army Secretary Mark Esper was so impressed that he asked to push the timeline forward, Theisen noted.
To kick off the initiative, the Army will issue optionally manned vehicles to two composite truck company units, he said. Thirty will go to Fort Polk, Louisiana, in September and 30 will go to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in January 2020. They will replace a platoon's worth of trucks at each installation, or half of each company's total number of platforms.
This will allow the Army to compare the platoon of optionally manned vehicles to the platoon of manned systems to see if the new capability improves the unit's performance, he said. "How does it change their tactics, techniques and procedures? These are some of the things we're going to be looking at." Following a yearlong operational technology demonstration, the service hopes to move the effort straight to Milestone C, he noted.
Low-rate initial production is scheduled for fiscal year 2021. Full-rate production is slated for fiscal year 2023 and production is scheduled for completion by fiscal year 2027, according to a November 2018 Congressional Research Service report titled, "U.S. Ground Forces Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) and Artificial Intelligence (AI): Considerations for Congress."
The capability is currently about an 80 percent solution for the Army's needs, Theisen said.
"We fully admitted it's not the whole solution. I don't think anybody has the whole solution... for autonomy," he said. "That's why the Waymos and the Teslas and the Toyotas and the Fords and...