Autonomous Ground Vehicles: Removing Soldiers from High-risk Areas

by Rick Gronemeyer / December 13, 2022

Autonomous ground vehicles (AGVs) offer many advantages on the battlefield. In diverse military missions, AGVs enhance situational awareness with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, target position transfer, concealment, and electronic warfare. But AGVs also remove soldiers from high-risk environments and help conduct combat operations effectively in a multi-domain battlespace.

Manned and Unmanned Combat Systems Integration

As a 26-year Army veteran, I have witnessed firsthand the evolution of advancements in battlefield technologies. In my current role as a Business Development Executive for Benchmark’s Aerospace and Defense sector, I am honored to aid in the design and development side of these technologies.

I recently attended the AUSA Conference in Washington, D.C., the Army’s premier conference showcasing modern technologies that generate discussions at the highest-level regarding warfighting capabilities. Many of this year’s discussions centered around how technological advancements shape America’s ability to fight and win conflicts now and in the future. However, the topic that piqued my interest above all others was the idea of integrating manned and unmanned combat systems in the same battlespace.

This concept certainly isn’t new. Our airspace has been integrated with manned and unmanned aircraft for decades. But ground vehicles face a diverse set of complexities which has required a more gradual approach to the adoption of autonomous ground vehicles (AGVs). The battlespace, for instance, can be littered with diverse obstacles and complexities. Vehicles must navigate among civilian populaces and negotiate between terrain occupied by friendly forces and hostile interactions.

Now, with the development and fielding of optionally manned fighting vehicles, our ground forces will have to adapt and learn how to integrate manned and unmanned vehicles and units into a cohesive fighting force. It is imperative that we evaluate some of the risks and the benefits of integration since the advent of these units working together will certainly be realized in the not-too-distant future.

The Command and Control of AGVs in Hostilities

Many countries are already developing and fielding unmanned tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. While only intelligence experts can comment on how advanced and reliable these technologies are, it is safe to say that at least two countries have fielded unmanned combat systems into brigade-sized units and are practicing maneuvers with them to understand how to best employ them in potential combat operations sharing the same battlespace. With that thought in mind, I want to address three basic ways that these systems are likely to be commanded and controlled in hostilities.

First, we must address some basic assumptions:

  • At some point, the optionally manned vehicles will operate without a human in the vehicle—in other words, totally unmanned.

  • When unmanned vehicles are employed, there will always be a human in the loop before the vehicle engages any of its weapon systems, and those weapons will only be engaged with a human positively identifying a target and engaging the fire control system to fire.

  • An unmanned vehicle will have the capability to “tether” itself to a manned vehicle to maneuver or maneuver independently, albeit with remote crews controlling their movement.

  • All combat vehicles will have mounted cameras that provide a 360-degree view enabling better situational awareness for both the unmanned and manned versions of combat vehicles. This provides a clearer picture of proximity to other vehicles and obstacles.

With these assumptions out of the way, let's consider three different scenarios as I see it.

Scenario ONE — Unmanned Tank Tethered to a Manned Tank

It is possible to move from an assembly area or forward-operating base completely tethered to a like vehicle. The tethered unmanned vehicle would likely follow at a specified vector and distance from a manned vehicle. In this scenario, artificial intelligence would keep the unmanned vehicle on a path based on specifications set before leaving the assembly area and navigate adjacently to either a manned vehicle or a manned unit.

Although the type of terrain dictates various maneuver techniques, with today’s advanced AI, we can safely move these unmanned vehicles without the worry of self-destruction due to terrain complexities (immovable objects, cliffs, and bodies of water). Unmanned vehicles might have to follow their manned counterparts, however, in constricted terrain (e.g., water crossings, bridges, and mountain passes) and then resume their pre-set deployment pattern governed by the programmed waypoints and AI.

This movement would continue tethered until the commander designates a human to take over maneuver—at which point, moving, shooting, and communicating would all be under the direct control of a crew in a remote location. Once engaged, the manned vehicle crew would be fully consumed with commanding and controlling its own vehicle and thus unable to assume responsibility of a second combat vehicle. Instead, the unmanned vehicle would now be fully under the control of its own remote crew—and remain so—until hostilities are completed and all units are consolidating on the objective, preparing to rearm, refit, and refuel.

Scenario TWO — Unmanned Vehicles as Independent Fighting Units

In this scenario, manned and unmanned vehicles would be completely untethered, and the unmanned vehicles would be formed into independent fighting units maneuvering, firing, and communicating via the remote crew. The unmanned vehicles would require a fully engaged crew while driving, coordinating, and observing from the line of departure to consolidation at the end of the engagement.

One could argue that this would be a much more complex way to operate unmanned vehicles since they would lack the advantage of real-time “on the ground” observations. This would also mean replacing the invaluable insights gained by human intelligence with intelligence provided by on-board cameras or AI based on terrain databases.

To be fair, in either instance, the unmanned vehicles would be operating by commands received by either a tethered vehicle or a remote driver. However, in the tethered scenario, they would follow behind or near the tethered tank. The unmanned tank could then glean intelligence on danger areas, constrictions, or immovable objects instead of hoping to avoid them based on a cursory map or terrain database recon.

Although there would be innumerable challenges in either scenario, there would be reduced risk in the tethered option.

Scenario THREE — The Hybrid Approach

The third option could be a hybrid approach where the unmanned vehicles operate as a unit under a single commander and with humans placed in a “predesignated” number of vehicles to help overcome some of the maneuver risks highlighted above.

In this scenario, I envision one vehicle per platoon with a human commanding that platoon and the unmanned tanks tethered together in platoon and company maneuver units. Like the first scenario, the maneuver from the assembly area to first contact could be achieved using a combination of human intelligence and AI. However, when it comes time to engage the enemy, each combat vehicle would then be driven and commanded by its own remote crew for the rest of the engagement.

Staying Ahead of the Competition

Keep in mind that these are but three of the basic approaches I have considered. In conversations with other Army veterans and experts in the field, there are dozens—if not hundreds—of other options that were looked at. Although it is impossible to cover them all in one article, I assure you, there are many brilliant tacticians, logisticians, and warfighters dissecting every conceivable option as the Army embarks on fielding these AGVs.

What I find most critical to making any of these scenarios come to life in the future is the ability to connect these vehicles wirelessly, in self-healing, anti-jammable mesh networks. Without a doubt, other countries will use every asset in their arsenal to jam signals, knock out communications, and disrupt our ability to operate unmanned vehicles in a hostile environment—but I am far from pessimistic. I am honored to work for a company fully engaged in designing and developing the command and control nodes in the network of the future to enable the scenarios above.

Benchmark partners with some of the leading companies building some of the world’s most sophisticated optionally manned and unmanned platforms. Our design and manufacturing teams work alongside our partners on these very technologies that drive the robotics and intelligence behind vehicles fielded today but will soon morph into integral technologies for unmanned vehicles of the future.

“Benchmark partners with some of the leading companies building some of the world’s most sophisticated optionally manned and unmanned platforms. Our design and manufacturing teams work alongside our partners, on these very technologies that drive the robotics behind vehicles fielded today but that will soon morph into technologies for unmanned vehicles of the future.”

At Benchmark, we not only provide the engineering prowess to aid in the design and development of these networks and vehicles, but we have employees who have been on the front lines and understand the dynamics of what is needed to bring these concepts to the battlefield.

If you are interested in learning more about what Benchmark brings to the Aerospace and Defense world, contact me directly. Let’s discuss partnering to make future concepts part of today’s efforts.

When safety matters, turn to Benchmark.

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about the author

Rick Gronemeyer

Rick Gronemeyer is a business development executive in the Aerospace and Defense sector at Benchmark, Inc. He graduated from West Point and served 26 years in the Army, retiring in 2013, and has vast experience running large supply chain management organizations for four fortune 500 companies (John Deere, Rockwell Collins, Honeywell, and Celestica). Rick hails originally from Iowa and is an avid football fan of the Army, the Iowa Hawkeyes, and the Green Bay Packers. He holds a BS in Engineering from the United States Military Academy and an MSA from Central Michigan.