The U.S. Army is looking to intelligent vehicles to ease soldier burdens in multi-domain operations. (U.S. Army - Shutterstock)

When soldiers enter a new environment, their mission demands they stay one step ahead of the enemy; however, they may find it challenging to maintain a high level of alertness if they're driving a combat vehicle across unfamiliar or dangerous terrain.

The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory designated several research programs as essential for future soldier capabilities. Of these major flagship programs, the Artificial Intelligence for Maneuver and Mobility (AIMM) Essential Research Program, endeavors to reduce soldier distractions on the battlefield through the integration of autonomous systems in Army vehicles.

Dr. John Fossaceca, AIMM program manager, said he seeks to develop the foundational capabilities that will enable autonomy in the next generation of combat vehicles. This include the construction of a robotic combat vehicle that operates independently of the main combat vehicle.

“The main purpose of this essential research program is to build autonomous systems that help the Army effectively execute Multi-Domain Operations,” Fossaceca said. “We don’t want soldiers to be operating these remote-controlled vehicles with their heads down, constantly paying attention to the vehicle in order to control it. We want these systems to be fully autonomous so that these soldiers can do their jobs and these autonomous systems can work as teammates and perform effectively in the battlefield.”

Considerations that go into the development of military autonomous vehicles differ significantly compared to those intended for commercial use. Manufacturers typically design commercial self-driving cars to operate on pristine roads, where heavy traffic and crowds of pedestrians play a significant factor in its capabilities. In contrast, the Army often faces environments with diverse terrains and areas that may not even have a road to travel on, such as forests or deserts.

As a result, this research intends to fill the gaps to cover these unique situations that soldiers face. Autonomy in the next generation combat vehicle will not only help soldiers make decisions but also clearly explain the rationale behind its suggestions so that a soldier can either approve the choice or intervene if necessary, Fossaceca said.

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