A pilot monitors the autonomous operation of a Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk ­during a test flight.

Jul 21 2021

Autonomous Vehicles May Cover for Soldiers, Airmen in Dangerous Places

From military convoys to helicopter supply drops, military researchers are testing ways to protect servicemembers with technology.

As private sector automakers pour money into autonomous vehicles, the military is doing the same, hoping to find the same cost efficiencies and lifesaving benefits.

Autonomous military vehicles are being designed to go places too dangerous for human soldiers: supply convoys near enemy territory, scouting missions where discovery is fatal, and flights through conditions with poor visibility.

And while many of these future ­vehicles may be of next-generation design, some research could add ­autonomous controls to legacy vehicles. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Sikorsky, for instance, are testing autonomous flight ­software on S-70 Black Hawk and S-76 commercial helicopters.

“The main benefit is soldier harm reduction, getting the soldier out of harm’s way,” says Shawn McKay, a senior engineer at RAND, which has studied autonomous convoys for the Army. “Reduction of casualties is a huge benefit.”

Autonomous Vehicles Keep the Focus on the Mission

Current military projects are focused on fine-tuning the technology needed to operate an autonomous vehicle. Most are testing lidar, radar and other advanced sensors that enable vehicles to detect and analyze their surroundings, plus ­artificial intelligence and machine learning tools.

In some cases, soldiers aboard the vehicle may be monitoring its operation. But the goal is to free up service members for the mission, while the vehicle drives — or flies — on its own.

“It’s really a soldier teammate in the battlefield that they can depend on to carry out parts of the mission,” says John Fossaceca, ­program manager for the Army Research Lab’s AI for Maneuver and Mobility. “We want them to be heads up and hands free.”

“We’re not trying to take pilots out of a job,” says Stuart Young, program ­manager at DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office. “We want to reduce the cognitive burden on them and make them more operationally efficient.”

VIDEO: How is the Army using augmented reality to train soldiers? 

How Machines Can Save Soldiers’ Lives

No matter the vehicle, it can be ­operated with fewer than the standard number of service members aboard, possibly saving lives.

Autonomous vehicles could do recon where drones cannot (such as heavily wooded areas) and draw fire so human soldiers would know where the adversary is hiding. Autonomous helicopters could drop s­upplies to pinned-down soldiers without putting others at risk.

DARPA is working to push the Black Hawk past ­autopilot, an operation directed by a human, to autonomy. The helicopter would run checklists, watch for treacherous terrain and pull up to avoid sudden obstacles.

The Black Hawk can be operated using a tablet on board the aircraft, or from the field with no one aboard. Similarly, Army convoys could run with either one crewed truck leading a pack of uncrewed vehicles, or with one soldier per autonomously operated vehicle.

“We’re trying to create a situation where soldiers need only basic ­information and don’t have to become roboticists,” Fossaceca says.

In fact, DARPA’s deputy director flew the autonomous Black Hawk after just two hours of training, Young says.

The timeline for putting autonomous vehicles in the field is a long one; commercial carmakers have an easier programming job than military researchers. “Most algorithms work on U.S. highways with clean infrastructure,” says McKay. “The operational environment is very different in a war setting.”

Photo courtesy Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company