Erik Sofge: “In Afghanistan, the shipments are about to hit the fan. Along with pulling all of its combat troops from the country by the end of this year, the Pentagon has to clean up after itself, hauling away most of the weapons, supplies and assorted infrastructure accumulated over 13 years of local war. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin is hoping that it can assist with the imminent scramble for the exit, by carrying a portion of that outgoing gear—some 20,000 containers’ worth, according to U.S. Central Command—aboard self-guided robot trucks. Whether Lockheed can squeeze its ground bots into the waning days of Operation Enduring Freedom will depend on a series of demonstrations throughout the year. Last month, the United States Army’s Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) and Lockheed Martin pulled off the first of those demos, sending a convoy of robot vehicles through rural and urban environments at Fort Hood, Texas. The driverless trucks dealt with intersections, pedestrians, oncoming traffic, and stalled vehicles, all without human intervention or assistance. That’s according to Lockheed Martin, at least—the media is rarely invited to these types of demonstrations, and notifications of results are released long after the event. Still, this is a milestone 14 years in the making. The pursuit of driverless military convoys is older, in fact, than the war in Afghanistan. In 2000, Congress mandated that (emphasis mine), “It shall be a goal of the Armed Forces to achieve the fielding of unmanned, remotely-controlled technology such that by 2015, one-third of the operational ground combat vehicles of the Armed Forces are unmanned.” DARPA, the Pentagon’s research wing, took up the challenge, launching two driverless vehicle competitions (or three, really, since the first Grand Challenge, in 2004, ended without a winner). Other military robot vehicle projects were funded, ranging from staid autonomous cargo haulers to the MULE Armed Robot Vehicle, a driverless weapons platform whose articulated wheels let it rear up to lurch over cars, or hunker down to provide cover for humans.”
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