"15 years ago, we started out with the vision of the smaller UAVs, which currently constitute a pillar of the IDF OrBat. The rate of change in the civilian world of drones has been extremely fast," says Brig. Gen. Nir Halamish, Head of R&D at IMOD's DDR&D (Directorate of Defense Research & Development, aka MAFAT), in his address at the sixth international UVID conference, initiated by Israel Defense.
"In 2001, the US government initiated the FCS program, which maintained that by 2015 one third of the US ground force would be unmanned. In reality, by 2015 there was not a single robot in the US military. Today we are at a point where, because of the civilian world, there are more capabilities nearing the situation where robots will be employed on the battlefield. By 2030, one-third of the IDF Ground Force can be unmanned.
"'MAFAT Unbelievable' is a program that locates technological potential capable of generating dramatic situations on the battlefield. It shrinks the normal technology development time constants. Autonomous ground vehicles are a part of this program. This field has two primary drivers: the capabilities, which are to come from the civilian world, and the other driver is the ability to technologically support the operational concept.
"A matching of expectations is in order here. In 2030, there will be no robots without human soldiers. It will be a combination of manned and unmanned platforms. In some missions, robots will participate. Other missions will be executed entirely by robots. Some capabilities have already been tested in exercises, and the operational concept is yet to be consolidated.
"Some of the autonomous capabilities will be utilized for dangerous missions. There are missions today where the weakest link is the human element, so we attempt to remove that element from such missions. There is also the question of who pulls the trigger. There is an emphasis on high-rate missions, at the forward edge of the force. Some long-term, time-consuming missions are dull and require a high level of concentration. Machines execute these missions better than humans.
"We have recently issued tenders for this field. One of them involves uniform standardization. UGVs should be linked with aerial platforms. You need standards for that. The goal is for every system in the IDF to conform to the same standard and connect to the same network. This will help make the most of interoperability in combat. One of the examples is the fully autonomous D9 dozer. These capabilities have actually been integrated.
"There are integrations between multiple robots, joint operation of multiple robots and cooperation with manned platforms. Autonomous logistic convoys constitute yet another application. Such convoys can deliver supplies without human involvement in dangerous areas. One of the challenges is when the trucks get off the road: how would such a vehicle make decisions in an environment that is not nearly as organized as a highway.
"We have issued several tenders. Within three years we expect a forward guard of UGVs: surveillance, patrol, strike capabilities, closure of fire loops. Such a vehicle will be able to select its own routes. It will choose what to collect, make decisions – and will also be capable of closing the fire loop. These problems may have been resolved a few years ago as far as the Unmanned Airborne Vehicle field is concerned, but in the ground platform field the gap is still substantial. It will happen in the IDF by 2020, when a full demonstration will be held. The entire world is trying to get there, not just the IDF.
"The urban scenario is yet another challenge. We want robots that would be fully coordinated and operate as a team – searching rooms. The communication aspect is a major challenge. We want to encourage smaller companies to develop such capabilities.
"Regarding the drone world, we will never be able to compete against civilian developments – solutions such as those by DJI and others. We focus on a number of things, drones for the IDF and other capabilities. The energy aspect is one of them. We want to extend the current endurance by three or four times. Fuel cells, hybrid propulsion or harvesting electrical power from high-tension lines – these are some of the ideas being processed.
"One other thing is to divert some of the drones to unique missions, like logistic airlifting of up to 100 kilograms to a distance of several kilometers, hauling such cargoes. We are also interested in the potential of drones as communication relays. The fact that 2,000 people participate in such a conference proves the fact that Israel is a superpower in the field of unmanned systems."
"The Operator should Deal with the 'What,' not with the 'How'"
"Heavy payloads that may be carried by ground vehicles and the challenges of maneuvering, including obstacles – these are the challenges we are addressing," says Alon Levin, Head of the Ground Robotics activity at IMOD's DDR&D. "There are many technological building blocks, but autonomy is the most prominent one among them. On the ground, it is based on a known set of rules for the road. When you get off the road or engage in military operations, it becomes more complex. The original user interfaces were designed for the operator. In the future, we will see universal operator consoles for any vehicle. Such projects are already underway.
"Future trends include vehicles that combine several worlds. There are new vehicles that aspire to operate in the air and on the ground, for example. These vehicles feature vertical takeoff and a fixed-wing configuration. Other vehicles include a drone motorcycle, like the one they have in Dubai. There are also ideas for a capsule that may be driven in several ways.
"One of the trends in the world of unmanned systems is interoperability. As the autonomy element evolves, we will witness trends of unification, common standardization, common interfaces and operating approaches. The operator should be free to deal with the 'what' and not with the 'how.'"