Next week, in a test area just east of Pittsburgh, six Marines will learn to control a robotic truck that may represent the future for logistics convoys, route-clearing missions and other high-risk battlefield operations.

Oshkosh Defense of Wisconsin developed the TerraMax unmanned ground vehicle technology that’s integrated into the company’s 6×6 medium tactical vehicle replacement.

Oshkosh displayed the robotics-enabled vehicle here this week at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems Unmanned Systems North America 2011 conference.

On the AUVSI exhibition floor, amid the displays of more than 500 unmanned systems companies, user agencies and organizations, John Beck, Oshkosh Corp.’s chief unmanned systems engineer, spoke with American Forces Press Service.

“Most of the ground vehicles that I know of in theater today are remote controlled — they take a human in the loop 100 percent of the time [to] monitor every motion,” Beck said, and to control steering, throttling, braking and other operations.

In June, the company received a contract to produce an unmanned cargo vehicle for a Marine Corps initiative called the Cargo UGV, for the Unmanned Ground Vehicle. The company’s sponsor is the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va.

“The idea is to get this autonomous system into theater eventually for all sorts of different reasons,” Beck said, “for convoy logistics missions, for route-clearance missions and for some of the combat reconnaissance and patrol missions.”

The goal of the Marine Corps program, he added, is to integrate unmanned systems into manned convoys, then to understand and develop concepts of operations and tactics, techniques and procedures for using autonomous vehicles on the battlefield.

Oshkosh has experience in theater; the company builds all the heavy and medium tactical vehicles and most of the mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles – known as MRAPs — the Defense Department uses, Beck said.

The company has worked on autonomous systems for medium and heavy tactical vehicles since 2003, the chief engineer said, “because we saw this as an emerging technology that we wanted to participate in.”

A year later, Oshkosh entered the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Grand Challenge, a driverless car competition held in the Mojave Desert in 2004. “We made it about two miles or so,” Beck said. “Nobody finished that one.”

The company entered another vehicle in the 2005 Grand Challenge, a 6×6 MTVR like the TerraMax truck on display at AUVSI, Beck said, and was one of the finishers. “At the time it was the smallest truck we built, but it was the largest one [entered in the DARPA challenge] and the only tactically relevant vehicle in the competition.”

In 2007, DARPA held an urban challenge and another Oshkosh MTVR, this time a 4×4, entered the competition.

“Those were interesting challenges in that they were completely unmanned and totally autonomous,” Beck said. “So we started from there, and now are back-stepping into how you would use [autonomous vehicles] in a tactical environment and in real logistics missions.”

The team works on challenging problems like helping the truck deal with big slopes and grades, but they also focus on the robot’s ability to perceive and understand the environment.

The truck has to understand trees, rocks and roads and where it should be driving. It has to be able to operate in environments with limited Global Positioning System access.

“It’s not very difficult to do those types of things in structured environments like today’s highways with lane markings and curbs and K-rail [barriers],” Beck said. “But when you get into more austere and primitive environments, it gets much more challenging.”

Seeing through dust, rain and snow is another challenge, the chief engineer said. For such things the truck has a range of sensors, including lidar, for light detection and ranging, electro-optical sensors, automotive radars, near-infrared cameras and many others.

“Without perception,” Beck said, “your autonomy can fall apart pretty quickly.”

Oshkosh recently completed its first limited technical assessment for TerraMax, he added, “which got us through all kinds of little wickets — obstacle avoidance, operating in dust and dealing with graded slopes and vegetation.”

Next week in Pennsylvania, Beck said, the team will teach Marines how to use the truck’s operator control unit and rotate them through the command-and-control and other vehicles.

The Marines, he said, will define missions for the unmanned system, monitor its progress, help it out if it needs guidance and supervise the autonomous operation of a mission.

“Part of the second phase of the program will be to have two unmanned trucks operated from one operator control unit,” Beck said. “One operator in a manned vehicle somewhere within the column can monitor the progress of two autonomous vehicles. If they get into trouble the operator can help reroute them.”

Eventually, Beck said, he thinks it will be possible for trucks to operate autonomously in places like Afghanistan where infrastructure is limited.

“There are plenty of hard problems to deal with, where you get into unstructured and dynamic environments,” the chief engineer said. “All sorts of questions need to be answered as to how you want the vehicle to operate.”

A driver might not stop at every stop sign or obey all the traffic rules in a hostile environment, Beck added. “Making the robot intelligent enough to make those types of decisions is a little ways out,” he said.

Asymmetric warfare drives the need for vehicles that are increasingly autonomous, Beck said, adding that the first vehicles might be autonomous but have a driver behind the wheel who can focus on other things besides driving the truck, like looking out for roadside bombs.

“They’ll probably start out with limited, proven amounts of technology and active safety, … like adaptive cruise control, and those capabilities will start rolling into and enabling autonomous operation,” the chief scientist said.

“As the capabilities get better and the environment is understood enough so you can run these [trucks] without people in the cab, that’s what will happen, especially in very high-risk areas,” he added.

“I think that’s when they’ll start running vehicles autonomously,” Beck said, “because it’s less of a risk to human life.”