Aberdeen starts work on robot test track

November 14, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,david.wood@baltsun.com

With U.S. and allied military convoys under increasing attack in Afghanistan, the Army began work yesterday on a new test track at Harford County's Aberdeen Proving Ground that will be critical in developing high-speed unmanned, or robot, vehicles for convoy duty.

When the two-lane, 4.5-mile gravel track is finished next fall, the Army will be able to test up to 20 heavy-armored manned and unmanned vehicles traveling at maximum speeds for hours at a time, officials said.

The military's reliance on dangerous-road convoys in Afghanistan and elsewhere is fueling an urgent Pentagon demand for more high-speed armored vehicles and robot vehicles. Dozens of the new designs will be tested at Aberdeen, where the new track will be the U.S. Army's only high-speed test facility for tracked and wheeled vehicles weighing up to 119 tons and traveling at 65 miles per hour, officials said.

"We have a growing demand for unmanned, autonomous vehicles with a high-speed requirement," Col. John P. Rooney, commander of the U.S. Army Aberdeen Test Center, said in an interview. Officials are eager to test different convoy configurations, such as having a long convoy of heavy trucks led by an unmanned vehicle "driven" by a soldier protected in an armored vehicle following behind.

The robot vehicles could also be useful as convoy outriders with remotely fired weapons.

The pressing need for better convoy protection was underscored yesterday just hours before Army officials held a rain-soaked ground-breaking ceremony at Aberdeen. On a stretch of road outside Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, insurgents struck a U.S. military convoy, killing a U.S. soldier and eight civilians and wounding 74 others, according to an Associated Press dispatch.

At least 75 percent of the food, fuel, ammunition and other critical supplies move to Afghanistan by road, in long truck convoys that snake over the mountains from Pakistan and rumble along the roads to American and allied bases and outposts. The country's high altitude, towering mountains and turbulent weather limit supply by air.

More than 400 U.S. military personnel have been killed in combat in Afghanistan since 2001, and 2,581 have been seriously wounded. Many of the casualties were suffered while driving in or protecting convoys, which have become a favored target for Taliban and other insurgents as well as bandits, U.S. officers said.

Most of the attacks are mounted with simple, cheap but deadly roadside bombs, often in coordination with ambushes with small-arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

During their decade-long occupation of Afghanistan, the Russians were unable to protect road convoys, a critical vulnerability that helped lead to their eventual defeat and withdrawal, according to Lester Grau, senior analyst at the Army's Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

Aberdeen will play a critical role as the United States seeks to avoid that fate, officials said.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski praised the planned new Maryland facility as "one more step in protecting our military."

"This is probably the only place where we encourage our miliary to go in circles," she quipped during yesterday's ceremony.

Unlike other automotive test tracks, the new Aberdeen track will not be banked, Rooney said, enabling engineers to precisely measure the "lateral loading" or centrifugal pull on vehicles as they speed through curves. That will help determine the right configurations to achieve maximum speeds, he said.

Robotic vehicles also will be tested for basic performance but also with different sets of sensors that are currently under development, Rooney said.

For example, the Army has been working on ground-penetrating radar to detect one form of bomb common in Afghanistan: a plastic bucket of explosives buried beneath the road surface, detonated by a simple pressure-activated switch.

The problem is that the current radars can see only a short distance ahead, and as a convoy gathers speed, it quickly outruns the distance the radar can see, according to Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, commander of the Joint IED Defeat Organization, the Pentagon command with responsibility for protecting troops from roadside bombs.

"Logistics convoys would like to have a radar that looks 100 meters out in front of them," Metz said in an interview.

Other devices, including the jammers the Army and Marines currently use in Afghanistan and Iraq to foil radio-detonated bombs, have to be calibrated to work in concert with each other at high speeds. That work also will be done at Aberdeen as new sensors and new vehicle designs are evaluated for wartime deployment.

"Our job is to find out what is not going to work before we get out into the field," said Rooney.

The new track, which will circle Aberdeen's airfield to avoid encroaching on the base's wetlands, also will enable testers to more efficiently test the ruggedness of vehicles.

"On this course, I'll be able to put 20 vehicles one behind the other and run them up to high mileage much quicker to look at the reliability numbers," Rooney said.

In their work on protecting convoys, Rooney said, his technicians will be evaluating the trade-off between vehicle mobility and survivability. Over the past five years, the Army has added armor to all of its wheeled vehicle fleet in Iraq and Afghanistan. But insurgents have been adept at building ever more-powerful bombs, including one device that blew a 72-ton Abrams tank off a road in Iraq in 2003.

And even with newer, more lightweight armor, there is a limit on how much protection can be added to a vehicle, Rooney said.

That's why robots may be the most promising technology that shows up for testing at Aberdeen.

The high value of a robotic vehicle, Rooney said, "is that it avoids putting the soldier at risk."

Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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