Autonomous vehicles could make U.S. Army convoys safer for soldiers by reducing the number of service members needed to operate transportation, according to a study from the nonprofit RAND Corporation.
Army convoys often have to travel long distances to supply battlefields. “Convoys are vulnerable to ambush attacks where soldiers unfortunately have been injured or killed in the past,” said Shawn McKay, lead author of the study and a senior engineer at RAND. Reducing the number of soldiers needed in a convoy “reduces the risk of harm to our service members,” he noted.
The research team investigated three different autonomous vehicle scenarios — one where all vehicles were fully autonomous; a partially autonomous concept, where a lead truck with soldiers was followed by unmanned vehicles in a convoy; and a minimally manned concept involving a soldier in the driver’s seat of each of the follower trucks to monitor the automated system and driving environment.
The researchers found a fully autonomous convoy would put 78% fewer soldiers at risk compared to current practices. A partially autonomous convoy would put 37% fewer soldiers at risk, whereas a minimally manned Army convoy put 28% fewer soldiers at risk.
“Autonomous technology is not mature enough for a full autonomous solution — that is, no soldiers in the truck,” McKay said. “However, it has sufficient maturity to manage many of the driving functions.”
As a result, in convoy operations where there are currently normally two soldiers in each palletized load system (PLS) truck, autonomous technology could manage driving functions enough to require just one soldier per truck, McKay said. “Though this may seem like a simple change, there are many cascading effects that need to be examined and managed, like organizational structure, personnel skill and training needs, and span-of-control implications during convoy operations,” he noted. (‘Span of control’ refers to the number of functions, people, or things for which an individual or organization is responsible.)
Partially unmanned technology won’t be available for highway driving for several more years, but the minimally manned concept is currently ready for Army adaptation and deployment in urban and highway environments, McKay said. The study recommended the Army implement the minimally manned concept as a necessary bridging strategy to achieve the partially unmanned scenario, as well as develop clear and practical technical requirements to reduce key risks, such as from cyberattacks.
Photo courtesy of RAND Corporation.