Friday, October 16, 2020

U.S. Army researchers on verge of major revolution in autonomous systems

The U.S. Army is expecting that robotic and autonomous systems will help future forces, operating as part of Joint teams, to help ensure overmatch against increasingly capable enemies.

In a statement presented by the U.S. Army, said that researchers on verge of a major revolution in autonomous systems potentially preventing the necessity of ground force prescence.

The future arrived at U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground (YPG) in the summer of 2020, and the Army called it Project Convergence, according to a recent service news release.

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The breadth of equipment and knowledge demonstrated was astonishing and unprecedented, from autonomous vehicles to air launched effects, and took the combined efforts of hundreds of personnel over the course of eight months of preparation.

The superlatives were found in statements from the most senior leaders in the Army, quoted in media outlets with national and international reach:

Gen. James McConville, Army Chief of Staff: “This is a major step forward in transforming the United States Army for the next 40 years.”

Gen. John Murray, Army Futures Command: “This may be not only be the most important thing Army Futures Command is working on, it may be the most important thing the Army is doing today.”

Leaders with a historical mindset likened the significance of Project Convergence with the Louisiana Maneuvers, which prepared American Soldiers of the early 1940s for eventual participation in World War II.

“This was the largest, most high profile capabilities demonstration we’ve had in YPG’s history, going back to World War II,” said Lt. Col. Alicia Johnson, Yuma Test Center commander. “The flexibility, professional competency, and expertise of the workforce was tremendous. The rest of the country had an opportunity to see what I see every day.”

“The entire proving ground executed Project Convergence,” added Todd Hudson, director of YPG’s Technology and Investments Directorate (TID). “There were multiple Yuma Test Center test officers across all divisions supporting this, along with a lot of different instrumentation sections. There aren’t many organizations on the mission or garrison side that weren’t involved in some way.”

The project combined both developmental and operational testing, and at various points throughout the six weeks more than 900 visiting support personnel were on the ground. In the last week, there were two distinguished visitor days: one for three star generals and below, one for four star generals. The Secretary of the Army, Undersecretary of the Army, Army Chief of Staff, and Army Vice Chief of Staff were among the visiting dignitaries—one could be forgiven for thinking that YPG was, for a brief moment, Pentagon West.

“You could probably add up the last 10 years of operational test events we’ve supported and make this one,” said Hudson. “The same is probably true for the number of distinguished visitors we hosted.”

For such a massive undertaking, the original idea was significantly more modest, at least so far as the small core group at YPG could see.

“It started off as a couple of Next Generation Combat Vehicles detecting and engaging some threats on the range,” said Cesar Ramirez, tactical vehicles teams leader in YPG’s Combat and Automotive Systems Division. “It evolved from that to having multiple sensors in the air and on the NGCVs detecting different threats. My role morphed from taking care of a few test vehicles to overseeing all of the operations on this portion of the range.”

From its initial conception in November 2019, however, the project’s ambitions grew to match that of the Army Futures Command, which is seeking to dramatically alter the speed and efficiency of the Army’s acquisition process. YPG’s personnel were never intimidated by the growing objectives, however: as the fourth largest Department of Defense installation in land area, YPG had the range space, infrastructure, and specialized experience to accommodate multiple tests from multiple commodities simultaneously. It was what the proving ground does on a daily basis, albeit with a much higher degree of attention and oversight, and with far more assistance from visiting personnel.

“For me, the challenge was getting the real requirements from everyone early enough to make sure we would be able to support them,” said Mike Barron, an engineer in TID’s development division who served as YPG’s primary point of contact for Project Convergence. “I knew if we did that, we’d be fine. I’ve been here long enough to know that once you tell us what you need, we will make it happen.”

The autonomous system, Origin, prepares for a practice run during the Project Convergence capstone event at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, Aug. 11 – Sept. 18, 2020. Photo by Pfc. Carlos Cuebas Fantauzzi

For all of the high level and very public visibility, the event was still a test and was conducted as such. Beyond the objective of using artificial intelligence and machine learning to reduce the amount of time from identification to prosecution of a target from minutes to seconds, more than a few of the equipment tests associated with the multiple CFTs that participated in PC were groundbreaking in their own right. The XM-1113 155 mm artillery round, which boasts a much larger rocket than its currently fielded counterpart, has been test fired numerous times by YPG personnel in the past two years, but always with an inert projectile—until PC.

“This is the first time we’ve fired the high explosive XM-1113 artillery rounds,” said Casey Scharenbroich, test officer. “This is the first data we’ve gotten on it.”

This first look ever required additional instrumentation and personnel to gather data.

“Usually we have one radar tracking the round,” said Richard Bloomfield, test officer. “For this test, we have five. Normally we have two or three KTMs, for this one it is four or five.”

In keeping with YPG’s longstanding reputation, the entire PC project was conducted without reportable injuries, despite a multitude of hazards for the visiting personnel. Operations were conducted on far-flung locations across YPG’s rugged ranges, sometimes on high promontories accessible only by rocky unimproved roads with grades greater than 20%. The proving ground was selected in part for its extreme desert conditions, and the mercury didn’t disappoint: Over the course of the six weeks PC ran, YPG saw nine days of record-breaking heat.

“It was a bad part of the year to be working in the desert for someone who isn’t used to working in the desert,” said Barron. “Everyone down range had to ensure everyone was following the rules and guidelines that all of us follow throughout the year to ensure they could conduct these operations safely.”

The lack of injuries was credited to daily safety briefings and frequent reminders throughout the day.

“As repetitive as it was for the visitors, it was a good reinforcement to tell them, ‘hey, this is not what you’re used to,” said Carlos Molina, test officer. “I think it helped people’s awareness.”

Photo by Pfc. Carlos Cuebas Fantauzzi

The other large, ever-present safety hazard to mitigate was COVID-19: Both the visitors and the YPG personnel directly supporting the effort were required to take a COVID test at the beginning of PC, and some were retested periodically throughout the duration of the event. Visiting personnel were generally restricted to so-called ‘bubbles’ that were separate from each other, and asked to restrict their off-duty activities to only essentials like grocery shopping or purchasing gasoline. All movements into and out of the bubbles were monitored and logged in case contact tracing became necessary. No one took ill during the event, a testament to the protocols that YPG personnel developed.

“We were extremely aggressive about COVID mitigation,” said Johnson. “Because we understood early on that this would be a persistent environment that we had to manage, we had a good foundation in place for the team to create the comprehensive Project Convergence COVID mitigation plan. We were doing the right thing every day, not just when PC was in progress: our workforce has believed in the mitigation process and has continued working throughout the pandemic.”

Though PC 20 just ended, plans are already well underway for the next two demonstrations.

“While PC 20 was executing, we were planning PC 21 and PC 22 with people on the ground,” said Hudson.

Army planners are striving to include equipment from all eight of the CFTs in the 2021 iteration of the event, and include participation from all Department of Defense branches.

“I’d like to turn this into a truly joint experiment every year here in Yuma,” said Murray. “How do our systems integrate and pass data as seamlessly as we were able to do within the Army systems?”

The intended breadth of future iterations of PC suggests that no installation in the world would be large enough to contain all of its activities.

“It will have to be very robust distributed testing across multiple military branches, ranges, and organizations,” said Hudson. “We will be a part of it and a great value added, but it will take a lot of partners to pull off.”

Without question, YPG will remain extremely relevant in Army modernization efforts.

“We’re part of posturing the Army for success,” said Hudson. “It’s known that we have already done a lot of good work, and it is up to us to maintain that momentum into the future.”

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Executive Editor

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