While the military’s proliferation of unmanned aircraft, or drones, continues to grab the headlines, the deployment of unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) is also anticipated to expand based on their role in helping military operations become more agile, responsive and safe. Intensifying mission requirements for UGVs called for in Future Combat Systems (FCS) depends on their ability to cost-effectively contribute to significant increases in intelligence through reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition, coupled with the ability to handle high-risk or labor intensive tasks and the efficient transporting of personnel and materials.

(U.S. Army photo by Stephen Baack)
Initial UGV design progression was hampered because they were typically based on proprietary technologies due to quick deployment needs or servicespecific requirements. Helping to propel UGV innovation is the availability of continuing advancements in open architecture COTS computing platforms. Now, UGV designs can more easily meet a long and growing list of interoperability, modularity and communications requirements and autonomous operation capabilities.

Suppliers of proven COTS platforms continue to broaden their portfolio with a range of solutions to satisfy strict size, weight and power (SWaP) mandates while featuring the latest multi-core processors, technologies and intelligence capabilities. In addition, highly ruggedized platforms ensure land-based vehicles meet system reliability and maintainability goals with their ability to withstand harsh environmental conditions where shock and vibration, dust, weather, obstacles, terrain and even hostile electromagnetic and cyber environmental concerns are all constant issues. Hand-in-hand with harsh environments is the careful consideration of thermal load and system efficiencies to maximize battery life that result in the utmost operational availability.

Leap-Ahead Computing

UGVs have been used in thousands of counter-IED missions, which made them indispensible in Iraq and Afghanistan. While they have proven their worth in saving lives, the Department of Defense (DoD) has also directed that next-generation UGV solutions continue to progress and at the same time be 'affordable and cost-effective' in a time of decreasing budgets. Understanding the severe operating conditions UGVs encounter, the DoD has specified that these systems must meet or exceed identified reliability goals to ensure they can accomplish their missions once they’ve been deployed. Interoperability, too, is integral to the continued success of UGV missions.

Contributing to many of the aspects called out in the RS JPO UGS (Unmanned Ground Systems) Roadmap (http://archive.defense.gov/pubs/DODUSRM-2013.pdf), advanced COTS-based technologies inherently reduce lifecycle costs across all systems due to their interoperability and modularity, improved communications capabilities and the ability to support complex integration of such systems as weapons payloads. In order for UGVs to provide the “leap ahead” payload, communications, sensor or imaging capabilities expected, computing platforms must be based on the latest multi-core processors. Available in a variety of form factors and based on existing MIL standards, today’s COTS solutions support the need for a common UGV architecture.

Optimized for high shock- and vibration-proof mobile applications such as UGVs, the Kontron COMecBTi6R offers an extended temperature range of -40°C to +85°C. Integrating Intel® Atom™ E3800 family processors and soldered RAM, it can deliver up to 4GB LPDDR3 with ECC or up to 8GB LPDDR3 without ECC. For safety-critical operation, it supports the Rapid Shutdown feature, an extremely fast shutdown that minimizes the risk of system or data tampering.
For example, the operational value of a UGV increases significantly if it can offer increased sensor capabilities or intelligent payloads combined with the ability to change or update any of these based on specific mission profiles. This highlights the value from modular plug-and-play payload capabilities that enable expanded UGV combat roles. Modular platforms enable the DoD to easily implement functionality and material improvements to deployed systems.

For UGV upgrades, built-in tests are not sufficient when a system becomes degraded or outdated. Modular systems make maintaining and replacing systems streamlined, especially in harsh battlefield environments where there are few infrastructure support resources. According to the most current UAS report to Congress, UGV systems must be ‘simple and supportable by the operators and maintainers in the field’ to maximize their usability and viability.

Persistent support of 24 hours or longer is an ongoing requirement, so battery power is seen as one of the biggest limitations of any unmanned vehicle. While there have been increases in battery technology and power management, computing platforms have also made improvements in operating efficiencies needed to further extend battery life. Increases in power to performance ratios improve system reliability and useful operational time, helping to extend autonomous use value. The processor roadmap identifies continued improvements to power and performance that are now presenting challenges to currently-available computing platforms.

A case in point are new pre-tested rugged box level systems based on Computer-on-Modules (COMs) that use mezzanine modules with a carrier board offering a modular building block solution. These MIL-standard systems facilitate UGV development by allowing use and reuse of low power, highly reliable technologies in highly ruggedized enclosures, these small form factor systems add significant value when partnered with processor upgradability.