Whether it’s on land, in the air or underwater, unmanned autonomous vehicles are already becoming a part of everyday reality - especially in hazardous environments. Brad Pietras, vice president, UK engineering and technology at Lockheed Martin, explains the latest developments.
Long before David Hasselhoff first graced our screens in a modified 1982 Pontiac Trans AM called KITT, the world’s imagination was gripped by the idea of the self-driving, intelligent car. Decades later, autonomous vehicles are a reality, though perhaps not quite in the way we might have imagined. While the dream of being able to read a book and drink your coffee as your car effortlessly navigates the traffic on your morning commute may be some way off, unmanned, self-driving vehicles are very much a thing of the present. Being able to put your feet up while your car chauffeurs you around town, although an attractive concept, is hardly a pressing concern. There are, however, many instances where the ability for a vehicle to drive itself can prove not simply advantageous and convenient, but life-saving.
Imagine a raging forest fire where the temperature can exceed 800°C. Sending fire-fighters into an inferno, no matter how well trained or equipped, always comes with an element of danger. If you could remove that risk by sending in unmanned vehicles capable of combatting the fire effectively, lives would undoubtedly be saved.
Or picture a conflict zone, where the supply chain to front-line troops is under constant threat. The ability to resupply and provide aid to soldiers in hazardous areas using unmanned vehicles, both on the ground and in the air, provides an alternative to putting lives at risk.
Land development and innovation
When we think of autonomous ground vehicles, the image that springs to mind probably looks like something out of the 2002 blockbuster ‘Minority Report’. Yet, while companies like Google are pioneering commercial driverless cars, this is really just the most consumer-oriented face of what is already a large and expanding field of development and innovation. The applications of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are an awful lot wider and, in many ways, more exciting.
Until now UGVs have primarily been used in warehouses, but companies like Lockheed Martin are expanding their application into conflict zones. Systems such as Lockheed Martin’s SMSS provide practical and logistical support for troops, working alongside the squad to enable them to be more effectively engaged in combat. These vehicles ultimately lighten the load and give humans a better chance of survival by working in cooperation with soldiers. The SMSS vehicle can autonomously navigate a road, trail, or down a waypoint path, or it can lock onto an individual soldier’s 3D profile and follow him or her. It can also be controlled remotely on the ground or via tele-operation.
The principle, however, extends beyond military uses to other humanitarian crises, where it may be safer or more practical to make use of UGVs. Vehicles like the SMSS could be modified and adapted for use in a variety of situations, such as fighting fires or providing aid and medical supplies. UGVs can provide invaluable support in a hostile environment, from both a military and civilian perspective.
More than this, autonomous vehicles could have a huge impact on the supply chain. Lockheed Martin, for instance, has developed the AMAS system, an ‘autonomy applique’ that can be used to convert existing manned vehicles into self-driving or assisted-driving vehicles. The implications of this go far beyond the military application of removing humans from dangerous convoy missions. It points to the possibility of automating a long-haul civilian supply chain, allowing for more efficient and less risky transportation. Applications include over-the-road transport of goods, mine haulage trucking, airport and seaport container movement and many more.
Airborne delivery solutions
Unmanned aerial systems (UASs) are both the most commercially available type of unmanned vehicle and the one that garners the most media attention. In their commercialised form, personal UASs are used primarily for photography and film. This is, on a smaller scale, not dissimilar to the way in which unmanned aircraft are currently employed in military situations. Surveillance is an essential part of any military operation and the ability to know what lies over the next hill or around the corner adds a great deal more security in a hostile environment.
Commercial systems are also under increasing consideration as a delivery option for companies like Amazon and DHL. In the same way, UASs such as Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX helicopter are capable of replacing, or at least aiding, supply chains in areas where manned ground supply chains are at greatest risk from IEDs or attack. Every item carried by a UAS is one that ground troops don’t have to risk life and limb to transport. Moreover, the aircraft systems can link up with UGVs such as AMAS-equipped trucks, creating a fully unmanned and autonomous supply chain, almost completely removing human risk.
Yet, as with much technology developed for military purposes, UASs have broader applications and can be co-opted into other civilian situations. For instance, farmers can use unmanned aircraft to survey large areas of crops in a short period of time to monitor for pest infestations or disease, as well as supplying fertiliser and water. Along with autonomous ground vehicles, air systems like the K-MAX can be used to fight fires in areas where it is dangerous or difficult for manned or ground vehicles to access. The most current and effective use for UASs is to provide essential and rapid surveillance for emergency services.
Looking to a future where autonomous vehicles feature ever more heavily in the way our infrastructure functions, it’s easy to imagine a supply chain system or emergency services response unit that relies predominantly on an interlinking network of supervised autonomous vehicles.
Automated shipping forecast
The sea has always been, and will undoubtedly always remain, an essential part of mankind’s existence and economy. The way we interact with our planet’s oceans may have evolved from fishing and exploration to include freight shipping and oil and gas extraction, but to borrow an old saying, the sea can be a cruel and fickle mistress.
In many ways, the sea remains a mystery and is a fundamentally hostile environment for human beings. Finding ways to effectively explore underwater has always proved difficult, but with the advent of autonomous vehicle technology it has become an awful lot easier. While there are military applications for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) in fields such as minesweeping, the most interesting and progressive uses are based on commercial applications.
Systems such as Lockheed Martin’s Marlin AUV are already in use in the oil and gas industry, providing a safer and faster method of underwater surveying of structures and landscape. This removes the need for lengthy and potentially dangerous surveys carried out by divers. It also means that it’s possible to build up an effective 3D image of the state of an oil rig, for example, in a fraction of the time it might take a team of divers to inspect it. Such systems allow for long-range and wide-reaching inspections of oil and gas pipelines or deep-water facilities.
The application of AUVs isn’t limited to industry inspection, however. They have the potential to be applied in areas such as conservation, providing unobtrusive and long-term monitoring capabilities for marine ecosystems. It’s also not a huge leap of imagination to picture the possibility of developing a method of freight transport using AUVs or automated shipping.
To boldly go…
Humans are natural explorers, yet there are very few truly untouched places on our planet. We must increasingly look skywards and beyond to experience pioneering exploration. The recent landing of the unmanned Philae lander on comet 67P was a triumph for science and engineering. The fact that we are able to send unmanned vehicles into space to gather data and information on the make-up of the universe and the possible origins of life is hugely exciting. It’s something that will only become more common with innovations in vehicle autonomy.
Yet, even as we look to the stars searching for alien landscapes to explore, we forget about the vast unexplored depths on Earth. Deep-sea exploration has long evaded us, and we know precious little of the landscape or life in the deepest parts of our oceans.
It’s undeniable that unmanned and autonomous vehicles will play a huge role in the future of our species. This will be both on a practical level as we find ever more inventive ways of removing ourselves from risk and lightening our load, and on a scientific level as autonomous vehicles provide us with an unprecedented ability to explore our own planet and the universe around us.
While the future may not look like a scene from a science-fiction movie (complete with talking car), it may well be built with the help of unmanned and autonomous vehicles. *
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.