EXCLUSIVE: Southwest Research Institute showcase autonomous military vehicle at ITS World Congress


Developers from the non-profit SwRI (Southwest Research Institute) brought a piece of military hardware with them to the ITS World Congress in Montreal this week (begins October 30) – an autonomous vehicle for helping to locate mines (pictured above).

Developers believe that technology on the vehicle, which has already been tested in action by the US Army in Afghanistan, will one day find its way onto civilian autonomous vehicles that will be found on roads around the world.

“The US Army envisioned special forces soldiers using an unmanned ground vehicle to support their mission in detecting and disposing of improvised explosive devices (IEDs),” Eric Thorn (below), R&D manager at SwRI, tells Traffic Technology Today. “Soldiers drive this vehicle along a roadway where they suspect there might be a bomb buried. And as they approach they can get out and actually command the vehicle to drive autonomously up the roadway with a payload of specialized sensors to help them look for IEDs. Assuming that they find one, it can actually be outfitted with other special equipment to dispose of it. We served as the lead system integrator to take the vehicle that they provided to us to help fit it with equipment and sensors to turn it into an autonomous vehicle. We’ve also done all the software development to allow it to operate autonomously.”

The vehicle has distinct advantages over remote-controlled machines as it not only means that a soldier no longer has to control it, but it also has a much greater range than would otherwise be possible. “It’s using the sensors that it has on board to kind of sense what the environment around it looks like,” says Thorn. “It can make decisions on where it’s safe to drive and where it’s appropriate to drive and then figure out how to actually drive that route. There is little to no human interaction, aside for maybe telling it to drive to this point five kilometres away.”

Now Thorn and his co-workers are looking to the future when this technology might be used on civilian vehciels “One of the nice features about this program is that we did all of this for the government, and they in turn granted this commercialization rights,” says Thorn. “So we’re able to apply a lot of the same technology to a road automated vehicle. So we also work with vehicle OEMs and tier-one suppliers who are pursuing that vision of fully autonomous driving somewhere down the road. We do a lot of component technology development, whether it’s related to perception causation or navigation, to support those types of activities as well.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).