Google and many traditional car manufactures might be hard at work developing autonomous vehicles for the general population, but the US army is looking to employ them far sooner than their estimates. Over the next 25 years, the US military plans to incorporate robotic vehicles in almost all aspects of its operation, especially when it comes to supplies. To get the ball rolling, it’s already started testing early versions of them.
The recent test the army took part in saw a convoy of different autonomous vehicles rolling through the Savannah River site in South Carolina, travelling at speeds up to 40 miles per hour, without a single human involved. There’s another test planned for sometime in August that will see the vehicles loaded down with soldiers and equipment to see if that affects it at all.
The biggest reason for the interest in robotics isn’t comfort or ease of operation, but cost savings. As it stands, involving humans in the military is the highest expense. Not only does training need to be paid for, soldiers have to be clothed, housed and fed on a regular basis and employed with a salary. Vehicles also need to be built with a human operator in mind, meaning extra protective measures and ultimately (in the case of fighter jets and other aircraft) limitations on its capabilities because of the basic physiology of a pilot.
With autonomous vehicles though, the army can skip all of that and just pay an upfront cost for the robotics and a continued fee for maintenance. Much simpler and much cheaper.
However, it’s not necessarily all to do with saving money. The US Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Centre has said it has plans to incorporate automated features with human drivers, making them more effective soldiers and giving the vehicles whole new sets of abilities. For example, in low visibility situations, or times when a convoy may need to travel without lights, radar and laser equipped vehicles could traverse terrain that a human eye wouldn’t be able to navigate over.
There is some concern in the military though, that autonomous vehicles could be too disruptive. If and when they’re implemented, there will be a big shake up in the way the military is run and operated. A lot of man power may be augmented by the move, but a lot of it could be made redundant as well. If supply lines become completely dependant on robotics, new divisions will need to be created for maintaining and managing them, as well as avoiding hostile hacking which could become a whole new battlefield in military conflicts.
One perhaps less disruptive way of bringing automation to the military however, could be to treat them like companion animals. So instead of creating autonomous trucks and cars, they use robotics that can carry heavy equipment in the field and follow soldiers around, making their lives a lot easier. Potentially as well you could have heavy weapons mounted on these types of robots, or equip them with sensor equipment that’s too bulky or unwieldy to have a soldier carry.
There’s also plenty of benefits to robotics being used in situations of high radiation or chemical attacks, but more research needs to be done before any of these systems can be officially given the go ahead.