FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. – The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) and the U.S. Army Futures Command, Futures and Concepts Center, in partnership with the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence (MSCoE), successfully completed the second phase of the Maneuver Support, Sustainment and Protection Integration Experiments-2020, or MSSPIX-20, in the fall of 2020.
During MSSPIX-20, warfighters gathered with science and technology researchers and developers to test new technologies in a simulated battlefield terrain environment. After initial demonstrations, many of these new technologies are given to Fort Leonard Wood Soldiers to allow for a deeper understanding of the equipment and testing of its durability. Soldiers then provide feedback on the capability and usability of the gear to ensure improved future development of the technologies.
The ERDC tested two technologies – the Robotics for Engineer Operations, or REO, and the Mobility System for Crossing Off-Road Urban Terrain, or M-SCOUT – on the unique terrain at Fort Leonard Wood. During the demonstrations, Soldiers and civilians posed many questions, sparking ideas on how to improve the overall capabilities and functionality of the two systems.
The REO employs a set of robotic platforms to remotely characterize a site by fusing multiple sensing modalities on a fully autonomous unmanned ground vehicle to capture critical information for engineer missions.
“Before we put an unmanned capability on the ground, we have to understand what type of environment we are dealing with. It’s critical for navigation purposes but becomes even more critical if we are going to do any terrain shaping,” said Dr. Ahmet Soylemezoglu, REO project lead and systems engineer at the ERDC’s Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL). “The robots we are testing during MSSPIX-20 are kitted with different sensing modalities like Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), stereo cameras, etc., to collect information about the environment and then turn that information into a site model on the computer. We’re gathering information like the terrain angles or slopes, soil types, obstacles, trafficability and whether the vehicle is able to traverse the area. Once we have that site model, we have a situational awareness tool and a planning tool to decide how to launch unmanned engineer operations in that environment.”
The information gathered by the REO is then utilized to effectively teleoperate heavy equipment such as bulldozers and excavators at beyond-visual-line-of-sight distances.
“Our overall project goal is to take the engineer out of harm’s way by giving Soldiers standoff capabilities to do their missions,” Soylemezoglu continued. “We do this by initially giving the engineers beyond-visual-line-of-sight teleoperation capability. They can manually operate their heavy equipment, or earth movers, from distances where they don’t have a direct line-of-sight. Next, we gradually build autonomous task execution capabilities so the machines can do the early, simpler engineering tasks on their own.”
“This is an extremely challenging problem,” said Soylemezoglu. “The current technology in autonomous vehicle (AV) driving is a completely different problem set than what the U.S. Army is dealing with. Current AV technology companies are investing billions of dollars and are dealing with well-structured road networks, road signs, driving rules, etc. Unfortunately, very little of that research translates into what we are trying to do because we are in a dynamic and challenging terrain, unknown environments, and may not have any a priori information. We also have people who are actively trying to disrupt our ability to complete the mission by either projecting force or denying our communication and global positioning systems.”
To get the REO to fully autonomous operations will take time. In 2018, the ERDC team started the first phase of the operation, which concentrates on site characterization and teleoperation. The team will move on to semi-autonomous task execution in 2024 and full-blown autonomy research will follow.
“This is a collaborative effort of ERDC rock-stars,” Soylemezoglu said. “We started this project with only three people, and now we have grown this program to have a total of 53 people, across three different ERDC laboratories — CERL, the Information Technology Laboratory and the Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory.”
The M-SCOUT is a prototype warning system mounted inside a ground vehicle that displays mobility obstacles on a map, detected from a sensor data cloud on-board an unmanned aerial system. The live terrain data is combined with mobility performance models to updated routes and provide situational awareness to convoy commanders.
The M-SCOUT team trained four Soldiers over a span of 1.5 days on M-SCOUT set up, capabilities and autonomous operation.
“The Soldiers then ran several tests with the M-SCOUT during the remainder of the week event where each test involved commanding an unmanned aerial vehicle to autonomously navigate with GPS waypoints along a designated route,” said ERDC’s Brent Towne, M-SCOUT project lead. “The event demonstrated the technology’s capability for detecting and reporting obstacle information and routing around obstacles along planned paths. The positive reception from the Soldiers gave confirmation to the relevance of the research and capability of the technology.”
The operational environment for Soldiers operating ground vehicles on the battlefield can be dangerous without knowing what lies ahead or just around the next corner.
“Road blockages can be challenging for large military vehicles to maneuver around or in some cases deny advancement along a route. Soldiers need to be aware of potential obstacles ahead of them to keep them out of harm’s way,” continued Towne. “The M-SCOUT is the missing link in ground vehicle operations in contested environments and provides the situational awareness vehicle operators must have for safe and successful ground vehicle operations.”
Fort Leonard Wood’s large training ranges provided the space necessary for demonstrators and Soldiers to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions while benefiting from hands-on training. The MSSPIX-20 planners ensured that safety was the top priority throughout the demonstrations.
“The MSSPIX staff did an excellent job with planning and coordinating during this event. The M-SCOUT team was able to successfully collect data and test the system prior to the event, even under these unique circumstances,” Towne said. “The MSSPIX-20 staff did a great job in making sure everyone stayed healthy and safe.”
For more information about the ERDC, visit https://www.erdc.usace.army.mil/. For more information about Fort Leonard Wood, visit https://home.army.mil/wood/index.php.