When more than 50 autonomous technologies and over 500 scientists, technicians and support staff came together for AUTONOMOUS WARRIOR 2018 (AW18) in Jervis Bay, ACT, it marked the culmination of four years’ collaboration between the militaries, defence scientists and defence industries of five nations.
Today, Navy’s Deputy Director Mine Warfare Diving and Special Ops Capability, Commander Paul Hornsby, and Defence Science and Technology’s (DST) Trusted Autonomous Systems Program Leader, Professor Jason Scholz, are exploring autonomous technologies with US Air Force Research Lab’s Senior Engineering Research Manager, Dr Mark Draper and Dr Philip Smith from the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.
The four, with their respective organisations, are collaborating under the Five Eyes’ Technical Cooperation Program (TTCP), which shares information and ideas among defence scientists from Australia, UK, USA, Canada and New Zealand, pursuing strategic challenges in priority areas.
Among them is TTCP’s Autonomy Strategic Challenge, which aims to integrate autonomous technologies to operate together in different environments.
AUTONOMOUS WARRIOR 2018 includes the Strategic Challenge’s fifth and final scientific trial - ‘Wizard of Aus’ - a software co-development program aimed at managing autonomous vehicles from a shared command and control system that integrates with combat systems used by Five Eyes nations.
US Air Force Research Lab’s Dr Mark Draper summarises AW18’s ambitious objective. “What we are trying to achieve here is force multiplication and interoperability, where multiple unmanned systems from different countries—in the air, on the ground and on the surface of the water or even underwater—would all be controlled and managed by one person sitting at one control station.”
Two systems together
To achieve this, two systems have come together: ‘AIM’ and ‘MAPLE’.
‘Allied IMPACT’, known as AIM, combines best of breed technologies from Australia, United Kingdom, United States and Canada.
“We’ve brought these technologies together and integrated them into one control station and we are testing its effectiveness in reasonable and realistic military scenarios,” Dr Draper said.
Australia has led development of three of AIM’s eight modules: the Recommender, which uses artificial intelligence to analyse information and recommend actions to commanders; the Narrative, which automatically generates multimedia briefings about emerging operational situations; and DARRT, which enables real time test and evaluation of autonomous systems.
The Maritime Autonomous Platform Exploitation (MAPLE) system is a UK-led project providing the information architecture required to integrate a diverse mix of live unmanned systems into a common operating picture that is fed into the AIM Command and Control Station.
“The sort of software co-development we are doing here is not usually done,” UK Defence Scientist Dr Philip Smith said.
“The evaluation team is using real time data logging to evaluate system performance, apply lessons learned and improve the software.
“This is also giving us detailed diagnostics to determine where to focus effort for future development,” he said.
DST’s Professor Jason Scholz is optimistic about the potential for these technologies beyond AW18.
“This activity has demonstrated what can be achieved when a spirit of cooperation, understanding and support exists between military personnel, scientists, engineers and industry.
“Systems became more reliable as the exercise progressed with improvements made daily.
“These highly disruptive technologies can potentially revolutionise how armed forces operate. The sort of cooperation we’ve seen at AW18 is vital for bringing these technologies into service.
“It would be interesting to run a similar activity with these rapidly evolving technologies in two or three years,” Professor Scholz said.
Commander Hornsby, who has been the ADF lead for AW18 and is developing Navy’s autonomous systems strategy, says the activity has raised awareness among Australia’s Defence Force and defence industry.
“The nearly 1000 visitors to AW18 gained fresh insights into the technology’s current state of development and its potential to enhance capability.
“As a huge continent occupied by a relatively small population with a mid-sized defence force by world standards, the force multiplier effect of autonomous systems is vital, which is why Australia is a leading developer.
The evaluations done at AW18 are also important internationally.
“The world is watching AW18 closely because Australia offers the most challenging operating conditions for unmanned technologies. If they can make it here, they can make it anywhere,” Commander Hornsby said.
Autonomous Warrior 2018 was a major demonstration and evaluation of the potential of robotic, autonomous and uninhabited systems, in support of Defence operations in coastal environments. It combined a dynamic exhibition, trials and exercising of in-service systems.
Australian industry contributed semi-autonomous vehicles for use in AW18 and developed data interfaces to enable control by Five Eyes systems. Contributing companies included Bluezone Group, Ocius, Defendtex, Australian Centre for Field Robotics, Silverton and Northrop Grumman. Vehicles were also contributed by Australian, NZ, US and UK government agencies.