Rick Robinson

Apr 22nd 2020

When Autonomous Vehicles Go to War


Autonomous vehicles are at the cutting edge of today’s defense technology. Long familiar in the form of guided missiles — and, even earlier, the torpedo — autonomous war vehicles are now taking on a far wider variety of roles.

In addition to functioning as weapons in their own right, as missiles and torpedoes do, autonomous military craft now also serve as platforms for launching other weapons, as well as providing reconnaissance. They do so not only in the air and at sea but also on land, where their roles include disarming or safely detonating IEDs (improvised explosive devices) such as roadside bombs.

The growing capabilities of autonomous vehicles is being driven by new generations of computers and sensors that make these vehicles “smarter” than ever before. But all of their military missions, whether new or long established, share the common goal of protecting troops by advancing into dangerous, hostile environments ahead of them.

It Came From Beneath the Sea

We think of them as a new technology, but today’s autonomous vehicles are products of a long evolution. Their ancestor, the self-propelled naval torpedo, first went to sea nearly 150 years ago.

The autonomous capability of early torpedoes was limited to a pressure valve that controlled the depth at which the torpedo ran. Later, a gyroscope was added to help keep it on course. Even with very limited self-steering capabilities, torpedoes transformed war at sea, making even the most powerful and heavily armored battleships vulnerable to underwater attack.

As Jimmy Stamp reports at Smithsonian, during World War I, the U.S. applied the same principle to “aerial torpedoes” — essentially biplane cruise missiles — though none were ready for use in the war. During World War II, Germany launched thousands of V1 and V2 missiles, and the U.S. also made some use of guided weapons in the closing months of the war.

By the 1950s, guided missiles were widespread, and their guidance systems became increasingly sophisticated. But missiles only need to be smart enough to track a target and crash into it (or explode close enough to destroy it). More complex missions, such as requiring a pilotless aircraft to land safely for reuse, were beyond the capability of existing guidance technologies.

Driving on Other Planets

Space exploration gave a key boost to autonomous vehicle technology, according to the Computer History Museum’s blog. Space probes use guidance technology similar to that of missiles, but designers also began developing wheeled rovers to explore the surface of Mars. Due to radio transmission lag, these vehicles could not simply be driven by remote control — they needed some ability to make their own driving choices.

Space technology, military requirements and the effort to develop robocars for highway use have all come together to produce the current — and still fast-evolving — generation of autonomous vehicles for military missions.

But autonomous-vehicle capabilities are also still emerging from the sea. The Navy has become a key player in autonomous technology because of the enormous range of operating environments it must face. Not only must the Navy deal with airborne and underwater threats; amphibious and Marine operations may require the ability to come ashore onto dry land as well.

The Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout autonomous helicopter is typical of the emerging generation of autonomous vehicles performing naval missions. Already deployed from large naval ships, the Fire Scout can also operate from the relatively small LCS (Littoral Control Ship), designed for inshore waters, according to USNI.

These smaller ships, more subject to the heave of the sea, make aircraft operations exceptionally challenging, while the coastal environment poses complex threats from aircraft to small boats to mines. The Fire Scout can be tailored with mission packages to support all of these roles while minimizing the need place sailors or Marines at risk in high-threat environments.

Even closer inshore, reports the Office of Naval Research, the Navy and Marine Corps are testing autonomous amphibious vehicles capable of “hitting the beach” and moving inland to provide up-front support for Marines.

You can play a part in the next generation of autonomous vehicles at Northrop Grumman.