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U.S. Army awards nearly USD 3Mn to push research boundaries in off-road autonomy

The U.S. Army awarded $2.9Mn to eight academic and industry partners for first-year funding of its newest program focused on expanding its autonomy enterprise.
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The RS2-H1 system from Howe and Howe Technologies, top left; the Hunter Wolf system from HDT Global, top right; the MRZR-X system from Polaris Industries Inc., Applied Research Associates Inc. and Neya Systems LLC, bottom left; and the Multi-Utility (Picture source: U.S. Army)

The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory created the Scalable, Adaptive and Resilient Autonomy program earlier this year to expedite emerging research in specific autonomous mobility and maneuverability sub-fields the Army has identified as critical to making decisions in complex and contested environments.

The research builds on findings from previous long-term projects, the Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology Alliance and the Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance. To better leverage rapidly changing technology in the field of robotics and provide the U.S. Army with flexibility to pursue research that best aligns with its objectives, the work will be executed in a series of annual technology sprints, officials said. The first sprint is specifically aligned with the goals of the lab’s Artificial Intelligence for Maneuver and Mobility Essential Research Program for development and acceleration of technologies for off-road maneuver in support of Army Modernization Priorities.

“The SARA program will help us accelerate our research in autonomous vehicles by including best of breed performers who will augment the capabilities of our core software, enabling future combat vehicles to operate in complex environments,” said Dr. John Fossaceca, acting program manager at the lab.

Dr. Brett Piekarski, chief scientist of the lab’s Vehicle Technology Directorate, said robotics and autonomous systems will play key roles in expanding the operational reach, situational awareness and effectiveness of forces in cross-domain maneuver. “Current commercial autonomy solutions are limited by needed infrastructure, prior information, and structured environments. More research is needed to realize the freedom of maneuver necessary for military relevant autonomous operations,” Piekarski said.

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The U.S. Army awards nearly USD 3Mn to push research boundaries in off-road autonomy (Picture source: U.S. Army)

Unlike on-road autonomous vehicles that will make use of well-marked roads, signs and established driving rules, Army operations take place in complex environments with dynamic conditions. “Robotic and autonomous systems need the ability to enter into an unfamiliar area, without the ability to communicate and for which there are no maps showing terrain or structures, make sense of the environment, and perform safely and effectively at the Army’s operational tempo,” said Eric Spero, SARA program manager. “Technologies must be identified and further developed, integrated and assessed to achieve the envisioned capabilities in perception, learning, reasoning, communication and navigation of autonomous air and ground vehicles.”

Partners will work in close collaboration with each other and the lab to further develop and then integrate their solutions onto representative testbed platforms, and into the lab’s autonomous systems software repository, for collaboration across the Army Futures Command and Army autonomy enterprise. Disciplined research experimentation will then verify and validate both expected and new behaviors, Spero said.

First-year awardees include the Colorado School of Mines; Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition; GE Research; Indiana University; University of California, Berkeley; University of Delaware; University of Rochester; and the University of Washington.

In addition to focusing on emerging research in autonomous mobility and maneuverability, officials said future sprints will explore scalable heterogeneous and collaborative behaviors and human-agent teaming. The expected outcomes will form a cumulative, quantifiable and tangible realization of adaptive and resilient intelligent systems that can reason about the environment, work in distributed and collaborative heterogeneous teams, and make operations-tempo decisions to enable maneuver in complex and contested environments.

The laboratory plans to bring partners together with Army researchers this summer at the Robotics Research Collaboration Campus in Baltimore County. It’s the laboratory’s newest facility for advancing knowledge of autonomy and intelligent systems.

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