The United Kingdom recently conducted its first-ever trial and evaluation of three heavy unmanned ground vehicles (H-UGVs), ramping up its armed force’s combat capacity in 21st-century warfare.

The test involved a rigorous assessment of the capabilities of each H-UGV and its respective effectiveness in different battlefield scenarios.

According to UK military officials, more than two weeks of testing was conducted at the British Army’s Armoured Trials and Development Unit (ATDU) in Bovington, Dorset, in England, evaluating the heavy (weighing over five tons) remotely-controlled vehicles developed by defense contractors from the Human-Machine Teaming Framework.

A first of its kind, the Defense Equipment and Support’s Future Capability Group (FCG) spearheaded the trial and performed a “stringent” examination on the selected H-UGVs, including Elbit System’s ROBUST, Milrem Robotics’ Type X, and Rheinmetall’s Wiesel.

These heavy robotic vehicles were evaluated on various criteria, including speed and agility, coping and traversing over rugged terrain, and communication systems.

Officials who partook in the trial were pleased with the overall demonstrations, with ATDU Commanding Officer Lt. Col. James de St John-Pryce expressing his satisfaction with the whole experience.

“It’s been a fascinating experience to test these platforms, see what they can do and what could potentially be achieved on the battlefield with crewless vehicles in the next 10, 20, or 30 years,” he said. “Make no mistake, we are at step one of a very long journey.”

But I am excited by what we witnessed during the trials … a great example of collaboration between the Army, FCG, and our industry partners,” de St John-Pryce added.

The British Army’s Future Robotic Vehicles

The Israel-based aerospace and defense firm, Elbit Systems, presented its robotic autonomous sense and strike (ROBUST) right before the ATDU evaluating officials.

It is a 6×6 remotely-controlled wheeled vehicle armed with a 30mm autonomous turret, an Mk-44 30mm Northrop Grumman cannon, and a 7-62mm coaxial machine gun.

While no details have been disclosed regarding ROBUST’s propulsion and suspension systems, according to Elbit, its H-UGV’s steering system was designed to allow itself to pivot turning while “reducing to nil the turning radius,” giving its operators a considerable advantage, especially when traversing in rugged terrain and highly dense areas.

The unmanned vehicle boasts two modes: 1) the “virtual driver” option, which features advanced autonomous driving mode equipped with visual and thermal sensing and obstacle detection, and 2) the “AI driving” mode, which highlights the use of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms capable of global autonomous path planning and real-time path adjustment, Elbit explained.

Moreover, ROBUST also features the company’s sophisticated Iron Fist Active Protection System, which significantly increases the survivability of the robotic vehicle, particularly against anti-tank attacks.

The Type X combat vehicle, on the other hand, is one of Milrem Robotics’ most advanced platforms intended to support mechanized units, ideally “acting as a wingman to main battle tanks.”

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The Estonian-based manufacturer designed a UGV that sought to provide troops with high survivability and lower casualties by “increasing standoff distance from enemy units,” all while creating a platform that is easy to upgrade and demands low maintenance costs. It features an open architecture system with a unique modular design and a low-to-zero noise signature. In addition, it can perform multiple missions with an option to serve as a loitering munition platform capable of carrying a payload weight of up to 4,100 kilograms (9,039 pounds). The vehicle can be mounted with several autocannons ranging between 25 mm to 50 mm.

The H-UGV has a dimension of 600 x 290 x 220 centimeters (232 x 114.2 x 86.6 inches) and a weight of 12,000 kg (26455.4 lbs), with a ground clearance of about 50 cm (19.7 in). Remotely controlled, the combat vehicle can reach a top road speed of around 80 km/h (50 mph) and a maximum terrain speed of 50 km/h (31 mph). It can shield itself from kinetic energy assaults, artillery munitions, and mine blasts.

Lastly, Rheinmetall brought its Wiesel robotic vehicle for testing, which features a high-tech autonomy kit based on the Wiesel platform—essentially a fully digitalized version of the tankette.

Unlike previous H-UGV platforms, the Wiesel has up to three operating options: manual, remote, and self-controlled by programming waypoints on a tablet. It is outfitted with advanced sensor systems that would allow itself to detect and avoid obstacles and keep track and follow behind friendlies in convoy mode.

The German arms manufacturer also equipped the autonomous Wiesel with a cutting-edge sensor that would detect soldier behavior to ensure the safety of its operators and a Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station (CROWS) that would allow troops to launch Javelin missiles.

Regarding the recent first-ever H-UGVs trials, FCG Head James Gavin said that the two weeks had paved a fresh perspective for the future capabilities of each vehicle.

“This has been about drawing industry and the Army and together to put these platforms through their paces and see what they can do now, and what might be possible in the future,” Gavin said. “Next, we will look at the data generated during the trials to see what worked, what needs more thought, and where we could go next.”

He added, “While we are only at the very early, tentative stages of this process, the H-UGV trials have been a success in that they have opened our eyes further to what capabilities can be achieved by uncrewed ground vehicles in the decades to come.”

A Quick History

UGVs emerged in the 1920s when reports about a working remote-controlled car steered via radio first circulated. A decade later, the Soviet Union developed a series of remote-controlled unmanned tanks called Teletanks equipped with machine-gun and was reportedly used in the Winter War against Finland in the late 1930s and again at the start of the Eastern Front battle against Germany.

The UK also tried to create its own uncrewed vehicle. The Brits planned to produce a radio-controlled version of its revered Matilda II infantry tank during the Second World War designed to provide troops with cover against anti-tank guns. The project was eventually canceled due to funding issues.

XM1219 Armed Robotic Vehicle
A canceled US Army XM1219 Armed Robotic Vehicle. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Noting the impact of the USSR’s robotic vehicles and a tracked vehicle the French used in an earlier campaign, Germany also produced their own UGV, the Goliath, in 1942. However, it was mainly used to locate and destroy mines.

Meanwhile, America began investing in mobile robots in the 1960s, with “Shakey the Robot” as the first major project led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). From there, dozens of concepts were conceived and later introduced to support the armed forces. It also sprouted sea and aerial-based counterparts, becoming increasingly significant as a military asset on today’s modern battlefield.