Ongoing testing of optionally-manned cargo trucks in leader-follower configurations that began two years ago has developed hardware and software to the point where the Army plans to use the systems and the soldiers that have been working with them in larger military exercises in 2022, an Army program official said on Thursday.

Moreover, the leader-follower effort has generated a lot of interest within the Army and with some more development will be ready in the near future to go into production with a program of record, Maj. Benjamin Hormann, military project officer for Ground Vehicle Systems at the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, said during a media roundtable.

Before the technology is ready for production, some additional hardening of the hardware and software is needed, he said.

The current testing at Fort Polk in Louisiana of the M1075A1 Palletized Loading System (PLS) also includes an autonomy kit provided by truck manufacturer Oshkosh Corp. [OSK], Robotic Research, and DCS, as well as a robotic software technical kernel developed by the government for the user interface. Oshkosh’s work on the autonomy kit includes the by-wire design included in the vehicles, Robotic Research is working on autonomy, and DCS the use interface and communications.

In the testing at Fort Polk, which has run the gamut of environmental scenarios and used various load sizes in the vehicles, Hormann said the typical squad arrangement includes a manned leader vehicle trailed by nine autonomous vehicles that mimic the leader.

Hormann stressed that all the vehicles are optionally-manned. He also said the government software ensures that even if the leader-follower technology is transitioned to another program, 90 percent of it would appear the same through the user interface with the only differences being things like control of weapons on systems that can fire weapons.

In 2022, the goal is bringing the units to a “collective training exercise,” possibly at the Army National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., or the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, either of which would take the project to the “next level” by operating in a “contested environment” with operational forces to see if they can “survive” in a high-paced environment, he said.

Currently, the units operate with the systems about eight hours a day, but the larger exercise would be 24 hours per day for two weeks. This is challenging enough for the soldiers but adding new technology will make it more difficult and “a lot of people” will be looking to see how they perform, Hormann said.

In his presentation, Hormann said the leader-follower arrangement enables greater throughput and safer operations for moving cargo. Autonomous trucks “don’t need rest” and currently soldiers sometimes are driving for up to 16 or 17 hours a day. Taking the humans out also means more capabilities can be added to the vehicles, he said.

The Autonomous Missile Launcher program is also interested in the technology. Hormann pointed out that once missiles are launched from a vehicle, the enemy knows where they are, which puts lives at risk. But with optionally-manned systems, there doesn’t have to be anyone in the vehicle.

The missile launcher is a science and technology project led by DEVCOM’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center with the Army Aviation and Missiles Center and Long Range Precision Fires Cross Functional Team. An Army spokesman said the launcher “will provide an autonomous cab-less HIMARS missile launcher to be remotely teleoperated or follow another leader HIMARS to a firing point for larger/long-range missiles to be deployed off a HIMARS platform due to the reduced footprint of a HIMARS cab.”

There is also interest from medical people in the Army in the leader-follower technology for field ambulances, Hormann said. This could take medics out of the driver’s seat, something not critical to administering aid, and let them attend to more patients, he said.

Hormann said his team is also working on the initial steps of introducing the leader-follower technology with the Army’s Remote Combat Vehicle (RCV) and Next-Generation Combat Vehicle program so that soldiers can use the technology with these systems. He said soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas will get RCV to conduct similar testing that is going on at Fort Polk with the optionally-manned PLS trucks.

The testing and development of the leader-follower technology at Fort Polk includes a continuous feedback loop from the soldiers that results in updates to the systems every 90 days. For example, Hormann noted that the vehicles can be remotely operated and soldiers asked for a grid to show up on the operating screen, which was accommodated through the constant feedback and development cycle.