Welcome to Episode 19 of the third series of The Weekly Defence Podcast. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and more. Sign up to an early email alert ...
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This article is brought to you by Israel Aerospace Industries.
With autonomous vehicle technology rapidly maturing, military robotic vehicles are playing an increasingly important role in ground defense according to Mr. Zvika Yarom, GM of the Land Systems Directorate of ELTA Systems Ltd. (ELTA), a multi-billion-dollar company focused on defense electronics and a subsidiary of the government owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the country's largest defense and aerospace concern.
ELTA designs, develops, and produces an exceptionally wide range of innovative defense and security solutions and sensors. These state-of-the-art products include: ground, sea and air based radar systems; special mission aircraft; SIGINT, EW and Intelligence systems for land, sea and air applications; and a host of dedicated sensors, weapons stations and vehicle platforms in support of ground forces. Regarding the latter, ELTA's dedicated autonomous Robotics Division, located within the company's Land Systems Directorate, is a pioneer and world leader in the design and development of . These advanced systems perform a wide range of combat duties – saving lives, reducing manpower requirements, and facilitating more efficient mission performance.
"While mature Robotic Autonomous Systems (RAS) are readily available and have entered service with advanced military forces, barriers still exist. Seasoned combat troops are often hesitant to place their full trust in these platforms and accept them as an integrative part of their combat teams…" says Yarom. He continues: "In the past technologies had yet to overcome the special challenges that all terrain military vehicles must contend with – these vehicles are different from commercial autonomous systems and are required to have much more sophisticated systems to maneuver in difficult and varying terrain. Many of the tasks pose significant challenges for RAS developers - autonomous control of a robot in unknown terrain is not like moving in clearly marked lanes, or teleoperated operation in areas that are familiar to the machines and controllers." While the RAS follow its pre-defined mission plan, at the same time it should be able to autonomously modify its course and actions along the way to achieve its mission goals. Some of the challenges that the RAS may face include the need to contend with mud, sand, deep snow, boulders, dense vegetation, or complex urban environments. The RAS's onboard sensors should enable to vehicle to detect, avoid, and if necessary, maneuver around obstacles even in the harshest conditions. Early attempts at autonomous operation were plagued by technical deficiencies, with vehicles often failing to overcome obstacles or navigate effectively. Moving onto the latest developments, Yarom confidently exclaims: "We really have overcome these challenges and are now focused on performing more and more complex and dangerous tasks so that the human factor can be removed and the risk to human life reduced".
To earn the soldier’s trust, RAS are required to perform their tasks without interrupting or compromising the mission. They must effectively deploy sensors and weapons, or deliver supplies to troops in an efficient, predictable, and reliable manner. They should be able operate under exposure to enemy fire and survive battlefield hardship, defeat enemy attacks and overcome countermeasures. In fact, the RAS should also be able to do what few or any human soldiers can accomplish, for example: quickly and efficiently disable explosive devices before detonation; and effectively operate sensitive tools in hazardous environments where human beings cannot function.
ELTA has been closely following battlefield developments; continuously adapting its AI based RAS solutions to current and future scenarios. According to Mr. Yarom, Combat RAS represents the next phase in military robotics, with UGVs and UAVs operating as an integral part of the combat team, adding a high level of mission autonomy and lethality. These are platforms that can maneuver, deploy sensors and operate weapons autonomously. They are designed to conduct missions either independently, in small groups, or as part of a tactical manned formation (platoon, company, or battalion). Such robots can communicate with other autonomous machines as well as manned combat systems. They gather, process, fuse, and distribute information, and operate with mission autonomy as part of a Man-Unmanned Team (MUMT).
ELTA currently offers both semi and fully autonomous unmanned systemsbased on multirole wheeled or tracked platforms. These systems work with combat formations, acting as a ‘smart guide’ to the manned vehicles or supporting the unit through independent missions, such as providing an advance guard. The lightest is a small autonomous platform designed to closely support a squad of warfighters by carrying loads and conducting basic combat support tasks using an integral mission payload such as ISTAR or weapon station. This UGV reduces load carrying requirements on dismounted troops, enabling them to maneuver and fire while remaining under cover. Another ELTA RAS solution supports the “Smart and Lethal Border”, which implements innovative border protection concepts empowered by autonomous systems.
The use of driverless trucks that can follow each other to form an autonomous logistic convoy in support of combat operations is an important part of the future planning of many modern militaries. Such vehicles, operating either independently or in small convoys, enable frequent dispatches of logistics with less risk to human operators. The convoys can be led by either a manned or unmanned vehicle. ELTA is able to delivery this capability today by equipping conventional trucks with its robust, combat proven autonomous maneuverability and navigation system, which supports fast and safe off-road driving. This system fits wheeled platforms and performs precision movement, sensor handling, and weapon control, enabling RAS assets to carry out diverse missions and maintain operational tempo in off-road complex terrain.
Such autonomous systems solutions are not exclusive to UGVs and may be integrated with manned or optionally manned combat vehicles to assist and augment the crew. The concept has been tested recently on ELTA's Carmel 1 Technology Demonstrator, recently evaluated by the Israel Defense Force (IDF). The system demonstrated the ability of a crew of two to successfully conduct a complex combat mission, effectively engaging a hidden adversary force in a complex urban battlespace. In this scenario the advanced RAS operated as a ‘virtual crewmember’, performing multiple tasks such as navigation and autonomous driving, sensor operation, communications management, and reporting. AI-based target recognition and decision support capabilities helped reduce the workload and enabled enable the human crew members to perform their missions effectively.
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