Land operations

according to Major Cory Wallace, robotic combat vehicles lead for the NGCV CFT.

Purpose-built chassis

The foundation of any vehicle is the chassis, and both the light and medium designs are based on the lighter model’s configuration. According to Mills, this commonality helps facilitate additional mission roles such as obstacle reduction; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) detection; and anti-armour capability. Previous programmes that marry robotics with field vehicles have taken an ‘upgrade’ approach that integrates robotics functionality into standard designs. “In other robotic programmes, such as the Palletised Loading System, existing army fleet vehicles are being upgraded with [drive] by-wire kits that enable them to be converted into robotic platforms,” says Mills. He says, however, that this is a “fairly invasive” upgrade in terms of boosting the technological capabilities of legacy systems. Early incarnations of the RCV programme adopted a similar strategy, which was tested on the army’s existing suite of M113 armoured personnel carriers. Results were suboptimal, as Mills explains: “Initial RCV testing used [drive] by-wire-enabled M113 platforms that retrofitted remote actuation kits onto platforms,” he says. “While effective in getting systems into soldiers’ hands quickly, there are limitations with the effectiveness of these surrogates when mechanical failures of the base platform limited availability of the platforms.” After proving that buying off the shelf does not yet provide optimal outcomes, the US Army shifted its focus to the development of a new base chassis. “The RCV prototypes are purpose-built systems designed specifically to be robots and to allow the army to test the capability of the systems,” says Mills. Designs leveraged from previous government and contractor R&D efforts were applied to the RCV programme to inform the new design. In terms of power, diesel/electric hybrid sources remain in favour as they allow for silent mobility. A full phase-out of diesel isn’t a consideration yet due to operational requirements, though research continues on future fuel sources. “There is development into leveraging other power sources – such as fuel cells – to replace internal combustion engines in the future,” says Mills. “[But] all-electric is not an option in the foreseeable future due to operational considerations – for example, range requirements and mission-use profiles.”

Open approach

Breathing life into a motorised vehicle and transforming it into a robotic fighting machine without adding to the cognitive burden of soldiers requires heavy use of software and data flow.

Pursuing a bespoke vehicles strategy may require a larger design effort, but it can save money over the long run as widely supported interfaces and connectors can be installed upfront. To achieve this, the US Army is maximising the use of open architectures and standard interfaces for its RCV fleet to ensure new technologies can be more easily integrated throughout the programme, avoiding lengthy procurement processes and intellectual property constraints.

“The army is taking a modular open-systems approach (MOSA) across the family of ground robotic capabilities, building off existing small robotic systems,” says Mills. “Effectively, we know the capability we have today isn’t the desired end state, so we’re putting in the proper hooks to enable competition throughout the life-cycle of these platforms.

“This is done through a series of standards, interfaces and government-managed software architectures. The interoperability profile defines the interfaces of robotic systems and enables swapping payloads on the platforms.” Since autonomous systems are software-intensive, that means taking an app-like approach to future development. “This way, we can build off of the common capabilities we have and add or replace software modules that increase capability over time,” says Mills. “Autonomy and robotic control software packages are also leveraging MOSA principles where core software is built on widely adopted frameworks with well-defined interfaces,” explains Mills. That will enable competition at the application layer without requiring changes at the full system layer. The concept is comparable with companies creating new or updated apps for desktop and mobile devices without having to amend the operating system. As the US government closely manages these software interfaces with industrial partners, competition is ensured throughout a system life-cycle, enabling the army

Defence & Security Systems International / 31

Above: The RCV-M, a diesel-electric hybrid with a gross vehicle weight of 25,000lb and a 30mm cannon.

Opposite page: Both the light and medium RCVs are based on the same configuration, which helps to facilitate additional mission roles.

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