Last week, SOFREP reported on the Navy’s latest venture into autonomous warfare, the 140 ton ACTUV, which holds the record for largest unmanned vessel in the world. Not one to be left behind, the U.S. Army also recently announced entering the next stage in development of their own unmanned vehicle, an armed Humvee called, “Wingman.”
While still far from entering service as a combatant, the “Wingman” Joint Capability Technology Demonstration, or JCTD, program has had a fair amount of success in developing and testing an autonomously piloted and specially configured Humvee armed with with a modified 7.62 weapon system. The platform’s early testing took place with an M240B machine gun, but feed issues forced the team to develop an electrically driven 7.62 weapon system to replace its gas operated predecessor.
“Obviously if you’re a kilometer away from your vehicle, jams are not good,” said Thomas B. Udvare, deputy chief of the program. “What’s nice about their electrically-driven system is that the incidents of jamming are greatly reduced.”
The Humvee navigates either manually, through teleoperation, or using a Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, developed autonomy system that relies on a network of driving cameras, sensors and other electronics to navigate the vehicle through predetermined GPS waypoints. The weapon system itself can also target enemy fighters autonomously as well, with settings for both using vision-based automatic target detection and user-specified target selection, depending on the mission requirements and preferences of the user.
According to Paul Rogers, director of TARDEC, there are still a number of hurdles to overcome before a system like Wingman is able to enter combat. While drones already have a successful track record in the sky, the seemingly limitless number of variables presented by different types of terrain and combat situations make a ground-based autonomous war fighter a particularly daunting task in terms of development. Nonetheless, once complete, Rogers believes platforms like Wingman will change the way we fight wars on the ground, just as drones like the Predator changed the face of aerial operations.
“We believe that this is a disruptive capability that can go a long way to changing the warfighting calculus,” Rogers said. “To add autonomous platforms to the manned formations and have both the man and the machine work side-by-side to accomplish a mission is pretty powerful.”
In May, Wingman will face the Scout Gunnery Table VI course, a live fire course used to train and qualify ground combat vehicle crews before they’re able to enter into larger combat derived exercises. If the two vehicle set, which includes both Wingman and a command and control humvee manned by five soldiers, does well, more service members will get the opportunity to test the platform in October, when engineers hope to permit Soldiers and Marines the chance to provide operational user assessments at Fort Benning.
Eventually, the Army hopes to use Wingman for combat operations, serving as an additional layer of firepower between U.S. forces and enemy combatants. Udvare is acutely aware of the comparisons one might be tempted to draw between an autonomous Humvee and firearm system storming the battlefield of the future, but he’s quick to temper those concerns.
“You’re not going to have these systems go out there like in ‘The Terminator’ [film],” Udvare said. “For the foreseeable future, you will always have a Soldier in the loop.”
Images courtesy of the U.S. Army