Demonstrations at Fort Hood, Texas last month showed the efficacy of Lockheed Martin’s Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS) – or, in simpler language – driverless trucks.
Previous work in unmanned ground vehicles has concentrated either on small, tactical units for the ISR role or on unmanned trucks in a rural/battlefield environment. AMAS, however, is aimed at enabling autonomous operations in an urban environment. The trial successfully demonstrated the ability to ‘sense and avoid’ hazards or obstacles that included road features and intersections, oncoming traffic and – perhaps most fortunately – pedestrians.
The AMAS programme is a concrete proof of the US military’s desire to get robotic systems – whether truly autonomous or tele-operated – into the hands of the warfighter. And that meets the cultural expectations and aspirations of a society that has developed a distaste bordering on zero tolerance for bodybags returning soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen from corners of foreign fields.
This does not necessarily hold true, however, for other nations and companies espousing the unmanned systems route as a panacea for all defence needs of the future need to be aware of this. Nobody is arguing that when it comes to a moral choice, any government is likely to prefer casualties to spending money on ‘peripheral’ systems. In a pragmatic sense, however, that is just what happens when budget restrictions mean that a nation with limited resources for procurement will continue to find methods of making its soldiers more effective, rather than developing an entirely new concept of operations revolving around expensive and currently uncertain unmanned systems.
Unmanned systems – even those as apparently anodyne as trucks – carry a sting in the tail in that they are disruptive in their effect. Disruptive, that is, to established doctrine and procedure. Some – including me from time to time – would argue that is a good thing. But let us be certain of the price we will all have to pay in terms of wholesale change before we embrace ‘unmanned’ as the ultimate solution.