This story first appeared in the March 7 print edition of GSA Business Report.
Some of the greatest losses over the past few wars in the U.S. have been in the supply line convoy, Sen. Lindsey Graham told an audience of engineers, politicians and soldiers.
He hopes a total of $40 million from the U.S. Army piped into Clemson University’s prototype development program for autonomous combat fleets may change that.
“This project here today is going to be transformative for the army,” Graham told those gathered for the Feb. 28 announcement at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research campus. “And it is one of the most important days in the history of Clemson University.”
The U.S. government recently committed up to $100 million toward the project moving forward as the university’s Virtual Prototyping of Autonomy-enabled Grounds Systems (VIPR-GS) Research Center rolls out design-to-build simulations and digital engineering technologies for the U.S. Army’s development of on- and off-road autonomous vehicles.
The U.S. Army’s DEVCOM Ground Vehicle Systems Center first invested $18 million into Clemson’s program in 2020 and granted an additional $22 million Feb. 24.
“We would not be here today without the visionary leadership and steadfast support of my friend, Senator Lindsey Graham, and Congressman Jim Clyburn,” Clemson University President Jim Clements said at the event. “Both of these great leaders wholly support the U.S. Army’s mission, and they knew that leveraging Clemson University’s research capabilities and automotive expertise here in the Upstate would create a tremendous and beneficial partnership.”
David Gorsich, U.S. Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center chief scientist David Gorsich told the crowd that time is of the essence.
Russia has operated unmanned systems, including the autonomous Uran-9 tank, since 2015, according to Samuel Bendett, a U.S. Army national security adviser, in Russian Unmanned Vehicle Developments.
“The army has been in a war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have not been modernizing as quickly as Russia and China have,” Gorsich said. “The Russians have released the Uran-9 robotic tank, and of course, they have hypersonic missiles. And so, as we look at where we’re going, we need to desperately modernize based on the threats to this country and nation and to our way of life, and also, of course, to our NATO partners.”
Uran-9 manufacturer Rostec Corp. announced in 2016 that the company would sell the tank on the international market, according to defense publication Army Technology.
If the U.S. Army used artificial intelligence learning to collect the data needed to make autonomous combat vehicles as effective as those with a human driver, it would take 100 tanks driving 24 hours a day for 400 years, Gorsich said. Modeling, simulation and digital engineering programs help bridge the gap.
“Before this ICAR campus was here, we were looking at these kinds of problems,” he said. “But VIPR gives us a chance to really focus on these autonomous systems and work on these problems in a more diligent way to really understand what the fundamental principles are and then also transition that work to industry.”
Clemson’s Deep Orange 13 cohort has built a virtual robotic combat vehicle protoype already, and the U.S. Army is in the process of building out a physical vehicle. Gorsich added that the U.S. government will likely allocate about $20 million per year toward the program.
“It’s no doubt we will have something running around out there within a year, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “That’s one protoype, right? And there’s other protoypes out there, but we’re learning so much from what we did from Deep Orange 12, so those lessons we learned will shape where industry goes and what the army buys.”
Deep Orange 12 was a high-speed autonomous Dallara racecar created for the Indy Autonomous Challenge, a $1.5 million stakes university competition at the Indianapolis raceway in October.
“We have partners at Ford and BMW, but we’re not at the point where we have a protoype we can manufacture en masse,” Gorsich said. “Everybody is working toward that.”
About 65 faculty members, 74 postgraduate students and Zoran Filipi, founder of Clemson’s VIPR center, have been pressing toward an industrial protoype over the past year, but Filipi has partnered with the U.S. Army for more than 10 years.
“The vehicles are ready already for demonstrations,” Filipi told GSA Business Report in reference to Clemson’s autonomous prototypes. “But you have to go through many technologies, many technology options in a very short time to make those vehicles ready for any situation and for interaction with people.”
Deep Orange programs headed by professors such as Filipi take automotive engineering students through a two-year product development process that has been sponsored by industry leaders including AVX, BMW, ExxonMobil, EY, Ford, GM and Honda R&D Americas, among others.
“The world around is transforming so quickly,” he said. “We have to react, we have to modernize, we have to start stepping up.”