Electronic warfare is a critical threat to military operations as adversaries are using radio, infrared and radar signals to confuse or disable vehicle electronic systems.
What makes electronic warfare particularly difficult to combat is the ability of malicious foes to operate from anywhere in the world, U.S. Army officials said. And, as the United States move toward a future Army where deploying autonomous vehicle systems is a likely scenario and where Soldiers’ lives depend on these systems, resiliency to enemy assaults such as communications jamming and GPS spoofing becomes one of the Army’s highest priorities.
Recently, robotics engineers at U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center traveled to the Woomera Test Range in South Australia to continue work begun in 2015 on a multi-year program to evaluate the resiliency of autonomously operating a vehicle from across the globe, in this case, by other TARDEC engineers in Michigan.
Called TORVICE, or Trusted Operation of a Robotic Vehicle in a Contested Environment, this joint program with the Australian Defence Science and Technology Group aims first to establish a baseline for long-distance control of a robotic vehicle before subjecting it to DST-G’s red-teaming in follow-on trials.
At Woomera, TARDEC engineers tested their robotic vehicle — a modified Jeep Wrangler Rubicon running TARDEC’s Robotic Technology Kernel, an autonomous mobility system. This was coupled with an Australian-developed satellite-on-the-move system to transfer data between a control station and the moving robotic vehicle.
Besides the TARDEC and SOTM teams, three DST-G groups collected passive electronic warfare data to prepare for the follow-on trials. This included capturing real-time high-resolution ground imagery via reconnaissance aircraft, operating an unmanned aerial vehicle to maintain constant location of the robotic vehicle, and managing a battle management suite which draws information from the manned and unmanned aircraft.
Woomera, a remote area with minimal signal interferences and many long stretches of unpaved secondary roads, provides a perfect playground for experimenting with robotic mobility as well as cyber and electronic warfare techniques.
Although the data from the experiment is still under review, TARDEC engineer Keith Briggs confirms success with the autonomous vehicle’s pathfinding algorithms and its ability to get up to operationally relevant speeds with minimal operator takeover.
“With improvements in path planning, material classification, and possibly utilizing a-priori data, we expect to get the vehicle speed up in the near-term,” he said.
As anticipated, direct tele-operation via satellite still requires some semi-autonomous capability to effectively employ a vehicle from the other side of the globe, said David Conger, TORVICE program lead.
“We’ve seen from past test events and simulation studies that compared to a human driver in the vehicle even modest amounts of latency–100-300 milliseconds–significantly reduce the effectiveness of direct tele-operation where the operator is directly controlling the throttle and steering,” Conger said. “In this first TORVICE trial, the latency from Australia to CONUS was around one second. To make remote operation viable, there must be at least some level of autonomy.”
Also, as expected, Conger said autonomous vehicles with sensing equipment like LIDAR are accurate at detecting positive obstacles, things above the ground such as rocks and trees, but negative obstacles, such as potholes or ditches, are very difficult to sense from a distance sufficient to stop the vehicle.
“Robotics engineers in the automotive industry haven’t addressed this because they assume the road surface won’t have any critical negative obstacles,” Conger said. “We don’t have this luxury. In order to effectively operate in relevant environments, we need to make improvements in negative obstacle detection and avoidance.”
There’s still much training and learning required to get the robotic vehicle to perform effectively in a contested environment.
“As we start embedding robotic vehicles into formations with squads, it is paramount for there to be a level of trust established between the Soldier and the semi-autonomous vehicle,” said TARDEC Director Dr. Paul Rogers, who viewed the demonstration via live feed from Edinburgh, Australia.
“Resilience to electronic warfare is a critical component in achieving that trust–to the extent that not only under the best conditions will the robotic vehicle perform as expected, but especially upon contact with the enemy it will continue to do so.”
Rogers expects that resilience will come in the form of both hardware solutions–for example, anti-jamming and GPS antennas — and intelligent behaviors where the robot can sense problems and adjust its mission accordingly.
Lessons learned at Woomera will be integrated into TARDEC’s RTK suite for TORVICE phase 2, which begins in fall 2017, and involves assessing cyber vulnerabilities via red-teaming, or challenging the technology from an adversary’s perspective.
During this next phase TARDEC looks to partner with the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center for its subject-matter expertise in position, navigation, and timing technology, as well as U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center for support with potentially integrating a weapon system on the Jeep Rubicon autonomous vehicle.
Ultimately operating a robotic vehicle in a contested environment must allow for a broad spectrum of adversarial challenges including intrusion detection, for such rudimentary encounters as GPS spoofing, which the Iranians claim to have used to bring down a U.S. drone in 2011.
“If it is as easy as GPS spoofing for an adversary to interdict our basic logistics — getting water, fuel and ammo to our Soldiers — it’s going to be a non-starter for autonomous systems deployment,” Rogers said.
Many emerging programs of record — Tactical Wheeled Vehicle Leader-Follower, Automated Convoy operations, the Squad Multi-Purpose Equipment Transport — will be equipped with cyber key performance parameters.
“Once you remove a human from the loop of a vehicle, which in some cases soldiers’ lives depend on, resiliency in all forms — environment, electronic and cyber warfare — becomes of the upmost importance,” Rogers said. “When we take the next step toward weaponization on autonomy-enabled systems, this is even more critical. Therefore, in order to achieve the increased survivability and standoff that autonomous or unmanned systems provide, it’s going to be necessary to make sure they’re hardened and resilient.”