NC trend: Battle bots
By Johanna Royo
Pfc. Hawa Josiah struggles down the long hall from her room in the Warrior Transition Battalion barracks on Fort Bragg. Painful leg, spine and neck injuries have left her on crutches for more than a year, and doctors aren’t sure when that will change.
Fortunately, once the 34-year-old soldier reaches the front door, a magic carpet of sorts is waiting to take her down the hill to Womack Army Medical Center, where she has as many as three or four appointments a day.
Josiah’s ride looks more like a fancy golf cart than magic carpet, but the two are more similar than they appear. The souped-up golf cart is a test vehicle for the Army’s Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center — TARDEC for short — based in Warren, Mich., where the ultimate goal is to create autonomous vehicles to send to war zones.
“What we’re learning here will eventually benefit the warfighters on the battlefield,” says Ed Straub, program manager for the applied robotics program at TARDEC, which has about 90 civilian scientists working in its automotive research hub. Straub and a team of engineers regularly visit Fort Bragg near Fayetteville. Home to about 50,000 active-duty military personnel and 14,000 civilian workers, the country’s largest military installation by population provides plenty of test subjects.
President Obama’s 2017 defense budget proposes increasing funding for TARDEC’s robotic ground systems from about $7 million to almost $13 million, though that’s minor compared with the estimated $30 million investment by tech giant Google with autonomous vehicles that have driven millions of miles. Using the same light radar sensor technology as a Google car, the military’s autonomous trucks and tanks could eventually navigate around roadside bombs and other hazards. The Army also is experimenting with driverless transport trucks and tested a convoy of seven tactical unmanned vehicles at more than 40 mph at the federal Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C.
For now, the Fort Bragg carts are still in the testing phase with a human behind the wheel, establishing patterns that are compared with the autonomous technology running simultaneously offline. That’s where Josiah and other wounded soldiers come in. Josiah, a three-year Army veteran, won’t be back on the battlefield, but feedback gathered from the Fort Bragg transport program will be used to save lives.
Researchers are throwing every obstacle they can think of in front of the driverless car: mannequins, roadblocks, unexpected traffic. The technology is learning what to do in any situation before moving to Phase 2, when the human passenger takes the wheel only if something goes wrong. In the final phase, the drivers will be gone and the carts will be completely autonomous. It is likely to be the first self-driving vehicle in North Carolina, which hasn’t passed any laws related to autonomous cars. Eight states and Washington, D.C., have issued rules or executive orders in preparation for the new technology. N.C. State University engineers plan a system of self-driving pods for a campus rapid transit system, but that is likely years away.
In the meantime, autonomous test vehicles are helping soldiers now. Since Josiah started scheduling rides through an app on her phone, she hasn’t missed a medical appointment. That can be a problem for her and other wounded warriors who suffer from memory loss. The system responds with a text-message reminder and a follow-up email survey. Her answers move driverless technology one step closer to reality.