Thursday, March 29, 2018

Transformers-like Intelligent, Unmanned Entities Could Fight India's Future Battles

When one of India's premier Defence Laboratory achieves it's goals.
Unmanning conflicts, removing the human element from it, could be a critical enabling consideration that would encourage planners to consider missions, that could bring about a swift, decisive conclusion to conflicts, were it not for the extreme dangers, it may involve. Conflicts, after all, are about protecting, furthering national interests. Nations, that is defined by its populace.
Towards this end, multiple laboratories, functioning under aegis of India's Defence Research & Development Organisation [DRDO], are currently engaged in developing-testing the building-block technologies of land-based Unmanned Vehicles to meet diverse end-requirement. These include, the Center for Artificial Intelligence & Robotics [CAIR], the Combat Vehicle Research & Development Establishment [CVRDE], Research & Development Establishment (Engineers) [R&DE(E)] and the Vehicle Research & Development Establishment [VRDE]. The latest issue of 'Technology Focus', details the work undertaken by Avadi-based CVRDE in developing heavy-weight class of tracked Unmanned Ground Vehicle [UGV.
CVRDE, with its mandate to 'design, develop & lead into production tracked, armored vehicle', has made relatively recent forays into this domain.  Being an all-new territory for it, with no indigenous frame of reference existing, they've had to learn the ropes, paving the way for subsequent forays. As a Technology Demonstrator, a conventional All Terrain Vehicle [ATV], was turned into a remotely-operated system. The illustration, below, showcases some of the critical technologies developed in the process.
With Project MUNTRA [Mission UNmaned TRAcked], it has successfully scaled up its efforts, converting the venerable Soviet-designed BMP II Armored Carrier Vehicles, into 3 remotely-operated variants, & a manned Control station:
  • MUNTRA-S: a Surveillance Platform
  • MUNTRA-N: a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear [CBRN] contamination detection Platform
  • MUNTRA-M: for Mine Detection-Marking mission
  • MUNTRA-B: manned Control Station for operating the above platform
MUNTRA-Variants-CVRDE-Unmaned-Ground Vehichles
These being Remotely-operated platforms, implementing a reliable, quick response Drive-by-Wire-system [DBW] is of paramount importance, for ensuring effective control. This system converts human limb movement, as needed to operate the platform, into corresponding electrical signal that, which when supplied to the actuator, applies necessary force to operate the mechanism. In a conventional, manned platform, DBW ensures driver comfort. In a remotely-operated system it, additionally, is also only means for maneuvering the platform. Therefore, any instruction given from the Control Station must be quickly received by it, for translating into corresponding action. This calls for a quick-reaction, or low latency, system.
CVRDE's implementation of DBW involves utilisation of Stepper Motor & Cable/Mechanical Link-based actuation arrangement, controlled with a help of Linux-based platform, adapting the Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems [JAUS] framework.
All things considered, however, the MUNTRA-series platforms would have limited practicality. Prime factors would include its, current, relatively low endurance of 8 hours & operational range of just around 5 kilometers, from the MUNTRA-B base station. The latter limitation is imposed, primarily, due to the Line Of Sight [LOS] communication adopted for the 2-way encrypted signal transmission. It is, also, a misnomer to call these current variants Unmanned Ground Vehicles [UGV]. Remotely-manned Ground Vehicles [RGV] would be a more apt description. A Man-On-The-Loop arrangement, where all major actions are initiated by the human, sitting some distance away, with limited autonomy incorporated in the vehicles, for functions such as braking to stop, in face of obstacles, while traversing through pre-programmed GPS way points.
As a natural progression, CVRDE has unveiled concepts of a weaponised platform, the Unmanned Combat Ground Vehicle [UCGV]. Similar to the MUNTRA, to gain familiarity with the challenges of weaponisation, a legacy BMP-II platform would, first, be turned into a remotely-operated one, equipping it from an option of offensive systems. Following this, plans involve building an all-new unmanned platform from the ground up, branching into variants, equipping each with systems, such as Surface to Air Missiles [SAM], Directed Energy Weapons [DEW] (lasers) etc.
The Chinese have a heads up on this front, unsurprisingly. It, recently, demonstrated such a retro-fit, converting one of its vintage Type 59 Tanks into a remotely-operated one.
A truly unmanned platform would, in fact, be capable of operating, for days, independent of any human interference, traversing long distances, communicating by bouncing the signals off satellites, taking independent, on the fly decisions, collaborating with other UGV/UCGV, comparing inputted mission objectives, with ground situation, to derive optimum course of action. CVRDE's present offerings can, realistically be termed as building-blocks, the learning outcomes of its present efforts, towards achieving something on those lines.
It's roadmap for the future, depicted in the illustration, above, reveals plans to achieve just that, and some more. As indicated in the title, by 2050, it plans to have developed "Autonomous Hunter-Killer Tracked UCGVs With Stealth & Shape Changing Features, In Deep Offensive Roles", that would see service with the Indian Armed Forces.
Autonomous, Stealth, Shape-changing... ain't that that Optimus Prime?