Unmanned drones have been hovering over the battlefield for the last two decades while the development of automated fighter jets is underway… but how about self-driving vehicles?

This is precisely what US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation and Missile Center (AvMC) engineers are currently working on developing. If successful, we might be seeing these within the next decade.

To make this possible, these renowned engineers are using the sophisticated High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) as the base platform for the Autonomous Multi-Domain Launcher (AML) and modifying it “to be controlled remotely and driven autonomously,” reducing personnel risk.

According to Christi Dolbeer, the director of DEVCOM Aviation & Missile Center’s Technology Development Directorate, the AML can potentially become significant artillery that will further boost the modernization and strength of the Army.

“Adding autonomy to drive mobile launchers and increasing the firing power of those launchers represents a powerful combination,” Dolbeer added. “I am very proud of the DEVCOM AvMC and DEVCOM Ground Vehicle Systems Center teams working together to give Soldiers even greater capabilities.”

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(Screenshot from DEVCOM AvMC/YouTube)

When we talk about self-driving cars, the first thing that comes to mind might be the ones from Tesla. But, the US Army said AML would feature a more advanced technology than those sold to consumers. It will also come with challenges, such as traversing through treacherous terrain, unlike the smooth, established roadways of civilian-built automatic autos. Not to mention the raining bullets the AML will have to endure and go through from the enemy troops.

“We are talking about putting a 36,000-pound vehicle in an area where there will be humans running around,” said Lucas Hunter, AML project manager for AvMC.

Hunter continued: “Tesla and other companies are working on vehicles that can sense cars in front of them and behind them; they have these nice stripes on the road that tell it, ‘I am getting out of my lane.’ Well, we are driving through open country, we don’t have stripes—we have holes, we have cliffs.”

Ongoing AML Trials and Testing

Simply put, AML’s main objective is to boost firepower on the ground troops and serve as a Soldier’s wingman just like the unmanned combat jets would be to Pilots.

Last June 2021, AvMC released a video demonstrating how they envision AML work and what it would look like when it collaborates with HIMARS and a C-130. You can check out the showcase below.

Initially, AML will feature multiple front cameras, GPS antenna, LIDAR, radio MAST assembly, electronics enclosures, and an autonomous steering module. It will also have additional radars and cameras for its blind spot, an external robotic request keyboard, and a dual pod launcher with a lightweight heavy-load rack, electromechanical elevator, and position navigation unit. But changes might still occur internally and externally throughout the program.

Hunter said that the team would further improve the AML system, particularly on situational awareness that would enable the unmanned vehicle to determine road obstacles and recognize the type of terrain the autonomous vehicle is traversing, all while without emitting too much energy.

“We need sensors that collect situational awareness data without emitting detectable energy like light or sound. Because you don’t want this to light up like a Christmas tree when the enemy is looking,” Hunter said.

Aside from this, the team also plans to expand the launcher’s control, allowing remote commanders to access it from different locations and looking into the possibility of having one soldier control multiple launchers.

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“AML applies a wingman concept to the Soldiers we already have on the battlefield,” Hunter explained. “That spreads out capabilities. So more targets have to be addressed by the enemy. At the same time, it increases the number of rounds that our Soldiers have available which keeps them in the fight longer. With HIMARS, once they fire their six rounds, they have to reload. If you add 12 more, now they are able to support frontline troops three times as long.”

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(Image source: US Army)

AML, also known as HIMARS Increment 2, caught the attention of many Indo-Pacific leaders during last year’s successful test simulation due to its mobility and range, which could effectively strike enemy targets’ anti-access or area denial capabilities.

According to Jeffrey Langhout, director of the Aviation and Missile Center at the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC), the project is still in its early stages. Another demonstration will be held by the end of this year to demonstrate its progress.

“Last year, what we did was very, very elementary school stuff,” Langhout said. “Well, now we’re getting into middle school and high school level of complexity. And of course, we need to be at a Ph.D. level by the time we actually would field it to a soldier.”

Hopefully, AML is the much-needed tech-artillery boost in the US Army.