Follow the Leader! Robot Trucks and the “Baby Ducky” Effect

16.03.09

Categorie: Logistics, Robots, Vehicles |

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Two years ago, Darpa, the Pentagon’s fringe research wing, hosted a robot race in the California desert, with a $3.5-million purse. Eleven robotic trucks gathered at a former Air Force Base in Victorville, going head-to-head on a 55-mile course crowded with tight turns, obstacles and cars driven by actual human beings. (See video above.) The goal of Urban Challenge, Darpa’s third robo-race, was to advance the technology that might one day take the people out of the Pentagon’s vulnerable supply lines. It’s harder to inflict pain on the equipment-rich, people-poor U.S. military when all you’re doing is shooting up hardware.

The racer closest to an actual military vehicle was Oshkosh’s TerraMax, a robot version of a Marine Corps medium supply truck. TerraMax was a spectator favorite but got disqualified early when it had a fender-bender during a parking test. The big, yellow bot’s size was a realistic preview for future supply bots, but a liability in the race.

At their concession ceremony, Oshkosh vowed to keep working on TerraMax, and today we’re beginning to see the results. Unmanned Systems reports that Oshkosh has fitted TerraMax with the U.S. Army’s Convoy Active Safety Technology. CAST is actually derived from an Urban Challenge contender, built by Perceptek, that failed to make the cut for the final race. It adds cheap, reliable sensors, a simple data-link and servos to existing trucks, so that the trucks will just follow each other along the road, rather than needing constant human direction. At an October 2007 test in Virginia, two drivers in CAST-equipped trucks took turns following each other, letting CAST do most of the driving. I was there, watching in a curious mix of terror and glee as the driver of my truck took his hands off the wheel … and the wheel kept turning back and forth. (See video below.)

Fitted with CAST, TerraMax can function as the “smart” autonomous convoy leader for “dumber” trucks fitted with less sophisticated sensor and processing suites. Like a momma duck leading her ducklings, TerraMax will use its optical and laser scanners and GPS to keep a whole robotic convoy on the road. Oshkosh is anticipating a three-year test of the “CASTed” TerraMax.

In related news, Pakistani militants have torched another U.S. supply convoy headed into Afghanistan. Attacks on convoys in Iraq five years ago drove the initial interest in robotic convoys and gave rise to TerraMax and CAST. You can bet your sweet bippy the budgeteers have got their eyes on our Afghanistan supply lines as they sign those checks to Oshkosh.

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(Videos: me)

Related:
Giant Robo-Truck for Unmanned Convoys?
Bots Spur Fuel Efficiency
Robot convoy, ho!
Robot race: pit stop
Robot race: Oshkosh crash
Robot race: anything can happen
Robo-legs kick butt
Firms fight over robot fighters

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6 Responses to “Follow the Leader! Robot Trucks and the “Baby Ducky” Effect”

  1. Camp says:

    I wonder if we will ever read of a guy who hijacks a convoy of robotic trucks all by himself.

  2. Max Anderson says:

    STRATEGICALLY THE MORTAR AND RPG TEAMS HIT THE FIRST AND LAST VEHICLES TO PIGEONHOLE THE TRUCKS CONVOYS IN THE SKINNY PASS APETURES OF THE MOUNTAINS. GET IT? PIGEONHOLE? ANYWAYS, THE IDEA MIGHT BE TO PUT TERRA-MAX TRUCKS WITH REMOTE ACCESS SIGHT FINDERS, LASERDAZZLERS, SEAWHIZ TECHNOLOGY GUN MOUNTS, AND ANTI MISSILE TECHNOLOGIES IN THE MIDDLE OF THE CONVOYS INSTEAD. STRATEGIC PLANNING UIS ESSENTIAL HERE TO BE ABLE TO COMBAT THE TERRORISTS WHO MAY TRY TO STOP THE CONVOYS AND LOOT AND BURN THEM, LIKE KHYBAR,.

  3. Max Anderson says:

    AND PENSHWAR PAKISTAN…

  4. [...] For the current WQ, the editors asked me to respond, since I also wrote a book on the subject: PW Singer’s excellent essay on the growing role of robots to the American way of war glosses over a few important points. Singer refers to “all the enthusiasm in military circles” for robots, while cautioning about the dangers of replacing thinking, feeling, moral soldiers with emotion-less robots lacking any qualms about killing. In fact, some of the greatest resistance to robotic weapons has come from inside the military, for moral reasons. The Air Force, for one, has stymied the development of autonomous fighter aircraft in part because it believes that human beings make better and more just decision-makers in chaotic, potentially lethal situations. And in the Army, soldiers and their commanders repeatedly have expressed mistrust for robotic systems, when a human soldier can do the same job nearly as well, and with greater accountability. A robotic truck autopilot, called Cast, ran into stiff resistance from young soldiers when engineers tested the device in Virginia in 2007. [...]

  5. [...] Regardless of the form the cargo bot takes, it must be adept at following the infantry, Braden said, adding that “it’d be nice if it didn’t make a whole bunch of noise.” The defense industry has experimented with a wide range of “following” systems for robots. Most rely on an optical or laser sensor that can identify the “leader” and keep the bot moving towards him. These bots also need some way to sense and avoid obstacles. Braden said today’s robots tend to get confused when they encounter people they don’t expect — especially short people and children, who might not match the bot’s standard definition of a person. Puddles and other flat obstacles also trip up today’s mule-type bots. [...]

  6. [...] This Convoy Active Safety Technology (CAST) truck autopilot, co-developed by the Army’s Tank-Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center and Colorado-based tech firm Perceptek (now owned by Lockheed Martin) — and based on software developed for Urban Challenge — has demonstrated increasingly reliable “hands-off” driving for Army and Marine supply trucks. CAST uses simple sensors and data-links to allow trucks to follow each other, while their drivers focus on scanning for attackers. CAST made its latest appearance at an Army “robot rodeo” at Fort Hood, Texas, in September. [...]

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