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Revolutionising Warfare: The Rapid Rise and Future of UGVs (Analysis)

17th June 2024 - 14:30 GMT | by Sam Hart, Simon Wilkins


Photo: Creative Commons

The uncrewed ground vehicle (UGV) market is advancing rapidly due to technological growth and geopolitical shifts. Increased investment and evolving defence priorities are driving interest in UGVs, although political, technological, and production challenges must be addressed for full market potential.

The uncrewed ground vehicle (UGV) market is evolving rapidly, driven by technological advancements, geopolitical shifts, and changing defence priorities.

The UGV market is experiencing significant technological growth, particularly in areas such as autonomy, remote control, and electrification. These advancements are transforming UGVs from simple resupply vehicles to sophisticated systems capable of various military applications.

In our recent webinar, ‘The Future of European Defence: Insights and Strategies Ahead of Eurosatory 2024’, the rapid pace of UGV innovation was one of the core themes of our conversation.

The conflict in Ukraine has had a profound effect on the defence industry. It has highlighted the importance of rapid deployment and resupply capabilities, leading to increased interest in UGVs for logistics and reconnaissance roles.

The Ukraine conflict has driven a resurgence in demand for existing platforms and underscored the need for advanced UGVs to enhance operational efficiency and reduce risks to personnel.

Despite advancements, the UGV market faces hurdles like the limited adoption of weaponised UGVs due to political and ethical concerns about “killer robots.” Additionally, the defence industry’s production capacity is under strain.

Decades of consolidation and outsourcing have reduced the surge capacity of many manufacturers, making it difficult to scale up production rapidly. The supply chain is also under serious pressure, with lead times for ramping up production measured in years, not months.

Nevertheless, the UGV market is poised for significant growth. Increased investment in research and development, particularly in artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, will enhance UGV capabilities.

Key trends, current programmes

An analysis by Defence Insight and Cytec Consulting revealed the key trends, current programmes, regional dynamics, and future innovations shaping the development and deployment of UGVs within NATO countries.

Based on trends in concept development and experimentation for UGVs across NATO, the current focus on UGV development appears to be on the so-called ‘last mile resupply’ solution.

In all but one of the European programmes examined, current trials and development of UGV platforms were limited to Mule, CASEVAC, and ISR uses, with platforms such as the Rheinmetall Mission Master and GDLS MUTT leading in this field. Working under 5-year ‘Epochs,’ the British Army, for example, is reportedly focused on unarmed UGVs for at least the first ten years of its development.

Hybrid engines and auxiliary power units

Another common feature highlighted in the US Army’s S-MET programme and prevalent among the top UGVs in NATO nations is the widespread use of diesel-electric hybrid power systems.

An electric engine adds additional range/endurance while improving ease of maintenance and enabling silent running. Another key finding is the stressed importance of Auxiliary Power Units, allowing squads and platoons to draw power from their UGVs to recharge small electronic devices such as the ‘Dismounted Situational Awareness’ system currently undergoing trials with several NATO countries.

Tracks vs. wheels

Mirroring the wider armoured vehicles market, UGVs follow a similar divide between tracks and wheels. Outside the THeMIS from Milrem, NATO-adopted UGVs appear almost entirely wheeled, with an emphasis on 8x8 platforms.

US Marines test a Tethered Unmanned Ariel Vehicle (MUTT-T-UAV) during Advanced Naval Technology Exercise 2018 (ANTX18). (Photo: US Marine Corps)

This emphasis on wheels, however, is likely a result of the UGVs’ intended use, which is in line with current market propensities. For mule and CASEVAC roles especially, wheels are understandably the preferred choice due to their weight, speed, and cost burden compared to tracks.

Is it too soon for the remote weapon systems (RWS)?

The fourth and potentially most interesting finding is the apparent reluctance of NATO countries to develop publicly and trial RWS-mounted UGVs.

Of NATO countries, only the Netherlands has begun significant trials with the Milrem THeMIS, which is armed with a .50 cal machine gun mounted onto an R400S Mk2 RWS. Outside of the Netherlands, all other countries within the scope of analysis appear to be focusing on unarmed UGVs until at least the 2030s.

This may be due to the same political pressures initially affecting MALE and HALE UAVs in the early 2010s regarding the moral component of autonomous offensive action.

The UGV market is at a pivotal point in its development, with technological advancements and geopolitical changes driving increased interest and investment. Overcoming political, ethical, and production challenges will be crucial to realising the full potential of UGVs.

    • For a more detailed examination of the UGV market and the opportunities for European manufacturers, see Defence Insight and Cytec’s 3500-word market report.

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Sam Hart


Sam Hart

Sam Hart is the Land Analyst for Shephard Media's Defence Insight. Before joining Shephard, Sam …

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Simon Wilkins


Simon Wilkins

Simon Wilkins is a founder of Cytec Consulting and has nearly 30 years’ experience in …

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