Contemporary Operating Environment

RACT Corps Conference | Automated and Autonomous Systems for Combat Service Support: Scoping Study and Technology Prioritisation

By Royal Australian Corps of Transport | Head of Corps Cell March 9, 2020

A summary of ‘Automated and Autonomous Systems for Combat Service Support: Scoping Study and Technology Prioritisation’ from a distribution focal point

In 2016, the Army raised Army Research and Development Request (ARDR) 16/0054 which sought to examine the opportunities for employment, and associated effects, of autonomy and automation across Combat Service Support (CSS) functions. The resulting 100 page report, Automated and Autonomous Systems for Combat Service Support: Scoping Study and Technology Prioritisation’, outlined the findings of a scoping study, subject matter expert discussions and a variety of case studies for the employment of automated and autonomous systems within a future based CSS system. The study shortlisted four technologies for further research: predictive analytics; last-mile logistics unmanned aerial systems; portable networked health diagnostic technology; and semi-autonomous convoys. The purpose of this summary is to focus on the key distribution components within the original report in order to facilitate discussion on how unmanned systems could be employed in a distribution context. This summary will focus on the potential opportunities of these technologies and the challenges associated with their operational employment.

Introduction – Autonomy, Automation and Autonomous Systems

Autonomy, Automation and Autonomous Systems (A3) are developing rapidly in an environment of low barriers to innovation and globalised access to technology. Their growing presence on the battlefield is due to the advantages of endurance, consistency and expendability. In 2016, Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) were tasked to explore the opportunities for automated and autonomous systems in military logistic operations and to elicit the specific requirements, contextual factors and potential Australian Defence Force (ADF) land logistics applications of such systems.

Employment Opportunities for A3 Systems within a Distribution System

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for Last-Mile Logistics. The report explored the concept of UAS being utilised for urgent deliveries within a denied, contested and isolated environment to facilitate Last-Mile distribution to dispersed forces where a conventional distribution method may not be feasible due to threat or terrain. The report highlighted a number of civilian off the shelf UAS products that are currently in use by civilian industry for distribution tasks. These include the DHL Parcelcopter, Google[x] Project Wing and the Belgian Vertical Take Off Landing (VTOL) version, VertiKUL. All of these systems come with weight, duration and distance limitations. The report found that VTOL and Rotary Wing (RW) versions of a number of surveillance purposed drones had the potential to be adapted to fill a distribution role with some structural changes.

Precision Air Drop System (PADS). The report briefly touched on automated aerial delivery and, in particular, an older fleet of the PADS. Since the release of the report, extensive trials have occurred with improved accuracy to within 150 m of the designated landing coordinates with

 a number of different weight ranges. At its limits, the PADS systems can drop up to 42,000 lb; enough for a JD450 Skid Steer or an SF ADRHIB. Additionally, PADS can be dispatched from an aircraft from up to 25,000 feet allowing a 25 km offset from target and the aircraft. This enables significant standoff from the majority of ground launched anti-air systems and negates all threat from a shoulder fired missile which would otherwise threaten a low flying aircraft.  This could enable a CT sized resupply without risking ground assets if the ground threat is assessed as high or a route reconnaissance is unable to be achieved. PADS has also provided the opportunity for reducing the amount of equipment a paratrooper may have to jump with as it can be packaged in either a light equipment or container bundle.

Land Distribution. The second major distribution focus of the report was the employment of A3 transport assets within semi-autonomous convoys. Driverless vehicles have become an area of great interest, with most major automotive manufacturers now developing their own versions. Autonomous haul trucks are gaining popularity for mining applications. The US Army is also testing vehicles for convoy leader tasks, similar to the semi-autonomous convoys discussed.

Unmanned Systems and Semi-Autonomous Convoys. Unmanned Ground Systems (UGS) or driverless vehicles can be used for cargo delivery and logistic distribution in reasonably structured and controlled environments. There is also considerable interest in developing systems that can deliver cargo to contested, isolated areas and to dispersed troops in a military context. With this concept in mind, a capability could be developed which would see UGS leading convoys to ensure route safety, or combined into autonomous and semi-autonomous convoys for cargo distribution tasks in controlled areas. With capabilities such as video, infrared imagery, electronic countermeasures packages, and improvised explosive device (IED)/land-mine detection packages, a UGS would remove the human factor from convoy lead vehicles and ensure route security when supported by UAS and other escort vehicles. Additionally, UGS vehicles can be placed in a “Follow me” mode, meaning they will simply follow the lead vehicle negating the requirement for multiple UGS operators.

Current Challenges for Automated and Autonomous Systems   

Data Management. There are a number of aspects to managing the data generated by A3 that are not yet adequately understood and mitigated and may present specific challenges in the context of distribution operations. They include reliability of data transmission, data security and data exploitation. Reliability of data transmission is often dependent on bandwidth availability and network reliability, with logistic operations commonly getting lower priority in network use. Recent examples of data hacking in the civilian context have seen hackers gain control of a range of systems in driverless vehicles. In 2011, an American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel UAS was captured by Iranian forces who claim to have jammed the control signals and used GPS spoofing to get the UAS to land in Iran. In addition to gaining control of UAS or UGS, various forms of attack can be used to gather information, conduct traffic analysis, force a system into a vulnerable state, modify messages, and conduct denial-of-service attacks.

Physical Parameters. Balancing physical parameters such as size, weight, power and cooling (SWaP-C) with payload capacity are a significant challenge for mobile systems such as UAS. Large SWaP-C impedes mobility and manoeuvring, while addition of external payloads can add drag. Some systems are constrained by the power consumption of the payloads, such as cameras and sensors, as well as survivability systems.

Power and Energy. Current UAS systems are limited in range with larger internal combustion engine powered platforms having the longest mission range. Dirigible-type airships (blimps) can also achieve longer endurance but with lower speeds. Fuel-efficient propulsion and power output are needed to extend endurance and renewable energy sources may help address this issue in the future. Additional power sources such as solar and hydrogen fuel cells were considered in the report, however these are still under development and are not yet ready for military application.

Navigation. Many mobile systems rely on a combination of Global Positioning System (GPS) and Inertial Navigation System (INS). GPS reliance can be a source of vulnerability in network-degraded environments and INS based navigation tends to result in drift over time. Inaccurate or degraded Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) can, in turn, introduce errors into navigation and sensor cueing. Additionally, complex environments can have a large demand on computing power, which may not be readily available in deployed environments.  

Additional Challenges. In addition to the challenges listed above, numerous others exist including personnel and infrastructure support roll-out, electronic signatures, potential for data overload, and the ability for the Defence Force to trust the systems. If these challenges can be addressed, UAS and UGS have strong potential for use in a distribution system.

Conclusion and Further Work

Integration and Further Work. In conclusion, the report identified a number of key unresolved issues that would relate to the actual implementation of A3 into Defence. These included: how to determine where they are appropriate or warranted; who would own, task and make decisions on behalf of the asset; it’s flexibility for other purposes; and legal, doctrinal and regulatory implications coupled with their effects on SOP’s and doctrine.

Summary of Report. A wide range of automated and autonomous systems have potential uses in military land logistics and distribution ranging from information systems to physical unmanned systems, and including human augmentation and management systems for power and energy. Initial indications based on literature reviews and consultations with ADF logistics officers indicate that promising areas for ADF land logistics in a distribution sense include the use of semi-autonomous convoys and UAS in support of Last-Mile Logistics.



Royal Australian Corps of Transport | Head of Corps Cell

Heads of Corps (HOC) undertake a vital role making a fundamental contribution to Army’s capability.  HOC are the senior advocates and advisors who, on behalf of CA, are charged with representing their Corps' interests and providing specialist Corps advice into all capability modernisation, employment category management, personnel and other policy development. They also hold the traditions and heritage for their Corps in trust.

To contact the Royal Australian Corps of Transport (RACT) Head of Corps Cell ract.hoccell [at] (click here).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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