On June 6 the Australian Army conducted its very first operation of a convoy of autonomous tactical trucks on a public highway.
The highway trials were held in Victoria simulating an autonomous resupply mission between Mangalore Airfield and Puckapunyal using the Goulburn Valley Highway and the Hume Highway. The convoy consisted of four Rheinmetall/MAN medium tactical vehicles which followed a crewed “leader” vehicle. The “leader-follower” trial was supported by the National Transport Research Organisation and Deakin University.
The technology of a driverless, unmanned vehicle has been successfully demonstrated by single vehicles in both commercial and military roles. However, for the later one of the most productive applications of autonomously driven vehicles would be the coordinated conduct tactical vehicles in a convoy. This capability would allow multiple trucks to transport loads together with only one or two soldiers controlling the multiple vehicles.
According to Colonel Robin Smith, of Army’s Future Land Warfare Branch, in an official Army statement “the autonomous vehicles performed well. This trial showed how a convoy could undertake a resupply mission between an airfield and a military base, giving us an idea of how this kind of technology could be used in the future”. Further, “Driving on a highway in traffic meant the technology was tested to stop safely, and leave distances between other vehicles, while following the path set by the leader.”
Although earlier trials had been conducted at the Royal Air Force Base Point Cook, to the west of Melbourne this was the first time the unmanned vehicle convoy has operated on a public highway. The ‘leader-follower’ system relies on a human driver to operate the first vehicle with subsequent trucks following in a convoy automatically corresponding to the moves of the lead without need for human input.
This trail is just one part of Australian Army’s modernization which includes the investigation of human-machine teaming, artificial intelligence and electrification. In fact, the Army had been evaluating autonomous M113 AS4 with BAE System installing hardware and software into the Armoured Personnel Carriers to allow soldiers to operate them autonomously in 2019. This was expanded to sixteen vehicles converted to OCCVs (optionally crewed combat vehicles in 2020 where the army tested the fleet through a multitude of activities.
Both the US Army and German Bundeswehr have also demonstrated leader-follower unmanned convoys. The InterRoC (Interoperable Robotic Convoy) project equipped Rheinmetall HX2 military trucks with autonomy kits and tested various convoy operations. These trails demonstrated continuous operation of over 75 minutes without manual intervention and allowed for a convoy length of 1,100 meters.