Places that unmanned ground vehicles thrive. Beth Stevenson describes some UGV training practises.

Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) operate in environments where it is inconvenient, dangerous or impossible for soldiers to be present. Two such instances are logistics resupply and ordnance device neutralisation. Both call for highly reliable, sophisticated technologies that demand skilled support, especially as technologies and doctrine evolve.

“If you use UGV technology for resupply, you can reduce the number of soldiers, or reallocate them to carry out some other tasks,” said Kuldar Väärsi, chairman of Estonia-based Milrem Robotics, noting that any force structure changes resulting from the introduction of UGVs into various tasks will require training to adapt accordingly.

“So far, the capability of an army has been dependent on the number of people, and the more that robotics are used for tasks such as logistics and resupply tasks, this will not be the case anymore,” Väärsi added.

A new focus of UGV operational planning is mission-based training. “We need to review how we deploy these systems,” Väärsi told MS&T. “The force structure and the main part of the tactics will remain the same [for now], as they enhance the units they are operating in. But what we will see in the future is that due to robotics and autonomous systems providing more enhanced capabilities, the tactics themselves can be changed as well.”

Väärsi pointed to Autonomous Warrior, the UK’s 2018 Army warfighter experiment in which British soldiers were to test and evaluate the effectiveness of robotic and autonomous systems on the battlefield during a four-week exercise beginning earlier this month. Defence Minister Mark Lancaster said: “Our Armed Forces continue to push the limits of innovative warfare to ensure that we stay ahead of any adversaries or threats faced on the battlefield.”

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is leading the assessment of the use of unmanned systems for last mile resupply. The Ministry of Defence, Department for International Development, and UK Research and Innovation via the Defence and Security Accelerator are supporting funding.

The UK government has awarded test contracts to several teams; Milrem, a member of a Qinetiq-led team, will offer its THeMIS UGV. “The tests will be carried out three times with exactly the same mission and tasks, but the first time without new technology,” Väärsi explained. “The second time will be with new technology but keeping the old tactics, and the third time the tactics can be altered as well.”

He said that this illustrates the progression of technology toward autonomous systems, so it is important that this is trained to, not only within the unit operating the UGV but within the wider operation.

While training for any equipment within the army is essential, it becomes particularly important with robotics, and it is expected that virtual training will eventually be introduced to further enhance the ways in which operators can train. In contrast with a manned vehicle, the virtual environment is the same as the operational one; there is less separation between the simulated and operational environments.

“With robotics, nothing changes, you can basically use the virtual environment for the training without being concerned that the real environment is something different,” Väärsi explained. “He sits behind the same type of computer he sits behind during operations.”

The current training offered by Milrem is 10 days for operator training to understand how the vehicle behaves and needs to be operated, as well as covering essential maintenance and check-ups.

A further 10-day course is offered for a further level of maintenance, which provides the user with the ability to carry out so-called line one and line two
maintenance on their own. “The tactical element is trained on top of that, both to the operators and to the unit commanders,” Väärsi added, noting that it is carried out embedded with the end user.

In the future there will be more focus on multi-system use and training; unmanned systems will not be siloed capabilities operated alone, but rather included in a broader force structure. “UGVs and UAVs are not single systems on the battlefield; there will be manned-unmanned teaming, unmanned-unmanned teaming. All of the systems are combined already in the [exercise] phase. If the tactics are the same, like with NATO nations, of course they can be combined at the training level as well for that.”

While there is an identified move toward virtual training for UGVs, there is also a requirement for desktop-based tuition as well.

Desert Drones

Best known for unmanned aerial concepts, Las Vegas, Nevada-based Challenger Aerospace is also developing unmanned ground vehicles and associated training. “We teach people from the beginning – the operation, how the system is built, the mission planning. It’s basically a learn-to-walk then learn-to-run course,” LeRoy Aday, president and CEO, told MS&T.

“You can get the vehicle from start to finish with all of the integration, and you can get the training from start to finish, so that when they leave they are qualified to operate a drone.”

The more intuitive the system is, the lower the training burden for the operation, although Aday stressed that the systems are sophisticated and not a toy.

“Everything we do is very intuitive, and it is also Linux-based. It is not running on Microsoft; we write the programme,” he said. “I’m a big believer in less is more, so when we design we make sure it does the job without a number of extra buttons and switches that confuse people, or a number of extra software steps.”

The training offered to operators of the UGVs provides the customers with the ability to train other users, although they are encouraged to return to Challenger Aerospace for refresh training at regular intervals. “The problem with self-training within their own unit is that they don’t stay current enough with changes, and we do make changes,” Aday said.

He added that there is a correlation between a shortfall in comprehensive training and crashes of UGVs.

Aday said the company is in the process of selling systems to Saudi Arabia, which is expected to also commit to the full training package. “Most militaries want to stay current, and they realise that civilians are the best place to get up to date,” Aday noted. 

Originally published in Issue 6, 2018 of MS&T Magazine.