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The U.S. Army Conducts Trials of AI-Enhanced Autonomous Combat Vehicle

In the quest to introduce the U.S. Army’s next-generation of lightweight robotic combat vehicles, scheduled to kick off in the third quarter of 2023, the project’s developers are refining their testing and evaluation criteria for technology certification.

While autonomous vehicles have gradually made their way into civilian use, the Pentagon’s journey to create robotic military vehicles spans nearly two decades. The Army considers these combat vehicles a top priority for modernization.

Winning contestants in the competition will be expected to deliver the first prototype units by 2028, as explained by the Maj. Cory Wallace, the lead for robotic requirements within the Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team. Meanwhile, the developers are reconsidering their approach to testing the technology before it’s battlefield-ready, potentially drawing inspiration from the civilian sector.

“With the RCVs, we are exploring entirely new systems and approaches,” Wallace stated during an interview with C4ISRNET. “Many of the existing testing procedures are not the most efficient for our needs.”

Traditionally, the military combat vehicles needed to meet specific benchmarks, like covering a certain number of test miles. However, autonomous robotic vehicles may not have the same requirements.

Wallace proposed that they might consider certifying these vehicles in a virtual environment rather than relying on the same mileage standards applied to regular combat vehicles. They are also contemplating incorporating testing and evaluation methods that have proven successful in the civilian autonomous vehicle industry.

Programmers are embracing innovative testing methods, drawing inspiration from the civilian sector to potentially enhance the efficiency of the testing process. “We are trying to draw from what has worked in the civilian world to see if we can improve efficiency through their testing standards,” Wallace added.

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Over the next five years, the Army plans to allocate nearly $750 million for the development of lightweight robotic vehicles, as revealed in fiscal year 2023 budget justification documents. The majority of this funding will be channeled towards the development of the robotic platform and its control system. Simultaneously, a second acquisition program will run in parallel, focusing on software development and enhancing autonomous capabilities for eventual integration into the platform.

When evaluating software capabilities, Wallace emphasized the need to create a methodology that focuses on changes between iterations and rather than scrutinizing each line of code. Delving too deeply into code evaluation, he warned, could slow down the certification process.

By segregating the software acquisition pathway, the Army aims to develop software-centric capabilities that can accommodate future configurations of robotic combat vehicles. According to the Maj. Gen. Glenn Dean, the Army’s program executive officer for ground combat systems, this core program element revolves around establishing the foundational vehicle and software architecture. This approach allows for the addition of new capabilities as software modules without necessitating extensive retesting of existing software modules.

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The U.S. Army’s goal is to develop three categories of robotic vehicles – light, medium, and heavy – for use as scouts or escorts for manned fighting vehicles, with the lightweight program taking the lead.

Earlier in this summer, surrogate prototypes of both the lightweight and medium versions underwent testing at Fort Hood, Texas. However, the Army had previously announced that the initial focus would be on smaller platforms, deferring work on medium-sized vehicles.

Brig. Gen. Geoffrey Norman, the director of the Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross-Functional Team, clarified that the testing at Fort Hood and future experiments are essential in determining the capabilities best suited for light vehicles compared to medium platforms. Once, these experiments result in refined requirements, the team will proceed with a dedicated program focused on medium-sized vehicles, as explained by Maj. Gen. Glenn Dean.

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