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By John Beck, Chief Engineer for Unmanned Systems, Oshkosh Corporation

Speaking at a town-hall event in March 2012, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta put it plainly, “We’ve got to invest in unmanned systems.” The U.S. Marine Corps Vision and Strategy 2025 also calls for more aggressive exploration of unmanned applications.

The reasoning is simple: Unmanned technologies have proven to be valuable assets in theater. In the air, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) have been proving their value for years, giving armed forces strategic combat and reconnaissance advantages. On the ground, remote-controlled unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) are helping troops investigate threats from a safe standoff distance, and gather situational awareness in areas difficult for a human to access such as under vehicles, in caves and in culverts.

Amid these successes, UGVs in the form of tactical wheeled vehicles have the potential to give military forces further benefits still by reducing troops’ exposure to threats like IEDs and allowing long-haul resupply missions to operate with fewer people.

Following a 2001 Congressional mandate that one-third of U.S. military vehicles be unmanned by 2015, Oshkosh Defense began working closely with the U.S. government, industry partners and non-governmental organizations to demonstrate field-ready, state-of-the-art autonomous vehicle technology that could one day save lives and help the military perform their missions more efficiently.

Robotic Roots

Seeking to spur military UGV development after the 2001 mandate, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched its Grand Challenge in 2004. The event was limited to autonomous vehicles, which were put to the test on nearly 150 miles of Mojave Desert trails.

Oshkosh Defense saw UGV technology as a natural evolution of its tactical wheeled vehicle work and partnered with a team of technology experts from industry and academia to develop its TerraMax™ UGV technology. Team Oshkosh Truck and 14 other teams competed in the 2004 challenge, although no vehicle finished the competition. Team Oshkosh Truck, however, was one of only five teams to successfully complete the 132-mile desert course in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge.

DARPA awarded Oshkosh a contract in 2006 to further develop the TerraMax technology in preparation for the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, which took competitors out of the desert landscapes of the Grand Challenges and instead put them in an urban environment with dynamic, real-world challenges. This included driving in traffic, correct intersection behaviors, passing stopped or slower moving vehicles, merging into cross traffic, negotiating turning circles and replanning a route if a roadblock was encountered.

Ultimately, the TerraMax-equipped Team Oshkosh vehicle was one of only 11 teams that advanced to compete in the race, demonstrating the ability to obey traffic laws and safely operating among both manned and unmanned vehicles.

TerraMax Technology Today

The TerraMax UGV system has made significant technological advancements from earlier iterations. Less than 10 years ago, most UGVs were unable to travel a mere six miles on static terrain. Today, TerraMax UGVs can operate for extended periods of time, day or night, and navigate through dust and adverse weather conditions – without the fatigue or loss of awareness that can affect a human operator.

TerraMax UGVs are capable of completing predetermined convoy missions in a fully autonomous mode in any position in a convoy. They also can be commanded to semi-autonomously “shadow” a lead command-and-control vehicle, or be driven remotely by a human operator, within or beyond line of sight. Vehicles enabled with the TerraMax UGV system have performed countless test missions without any human intervention, constituting thousands of miles in challe

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