AUSA Symposium showcases intersection of automotive and defense industries

The Nov. 28 and 29 AUSA symposium in Detroit explored and showcased innovative ways the U.S. Army is developing critical capabilities in robotics, autonomy, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.  

GM developing hydrogen fuel cells with the Army
Hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles don't get much attention from the typical car buyer but the potential of this next-generation fuel of the future is getting lots of attention from the U.S. Army.

Hydrogen fuel cells offer a unique combination of potential benefits in military applications, as Charles Freese, executive director of global fuel cell activities for General Motors, outlined in a keynote speech to the Army Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence Symposium in Detroit. The combination of range, refueling and stealth offered by fuel-cell vehicles present significant advantages to the military, Freese told the audience of military and industry leaders.

In addition, the military is a better potential first market for fuel cell vehicles because of its ability to invest in expensive new technology, the size of the market and the military's ability to build its own infrastructure.

“What we're doing at General Motors is that we're trying to find uses for the technology that we're developing for our non-military customers and find ways to adapt that to solve problems that can also fit into segments like the military segment,” Freese said.

Consumer fuel cell vehicles from Toyota, Honda and Hyundai are for sale and on the road in California, which is home to about half of the 6,500 fuel cell vehicles sold between 2013 and 2017, supported by about three dozen refueling stations. General Motors has announced a deal to develop a fuel cell manufacturing plant with Honda, and has started testing the ZH2 with the Army, a highly modified Chevrolet Colorado pickup the runs on hydrogen .

The benefits of hydrogen vehicles in military use include it's stealth – fuel-cell powered platforms are nearly silent and have a very small heat signature. Hydrogen the most common element in the universe – can be generated from several sources, and refueling a fuel-cell vehicle takes no longer than a gas vehicle, as opposed to the hours it takes to charge a battery-powered one. Hydrogen-powered military vehicles also could be used to generate power, and produce 2 gallons of water per hour.

Robotics, Autonomous Systems, and AI for the Army

Robots already are enlisted in the Army and more will be on the way, including using unmanned vehicle systems to carry weapons and gear for fighting units, an effort that is is a priority for the service.

That technology isn't perfected yet but other existing robot devices already are in use. The makers of the Roomba floor-cleaning robot, iRobot, developed spin-offs that have been used to locate Taliban fighters and to handle explosive devices, credited with saving the lives of soldiers and civilians.

The co-founder of iRobot, Helen Greiner, was sworn in last summers as an expert on robotics and artificial intelligence initiatives for the Army. Addressing a panel about “Robotics, Autonomy, and Artificial Intelligence in Small Units” at the Army Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence Symposium, Greiner said the military should continue to apply such small robot technology while also researching larger robotics systems “because they can do more damage.”

Added Greiner: “Some people don’t think robots can do anything, and some people think they can do anything. Neither is true.”

A recent research paper from the Association of the U.S. Army’s Institute of Land Warfare noted that robotics and autonomous systems can give the Army advantages in close combat fighting by putting fewer soldiers at risk and improving situational awareness, force protection, survivability, and lethality.

The “biggest danger facing the nation, Greiner said, “is someone else’s robots on the battlefield.”

Evolving the Army for Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence

The U.S. Army – like Detroit's automakers– will need to change many of its ways as it adapts to take the full advantage of autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence, said experts at the Army Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence Symposium.

“Leaders will have to understand what's out there,” in terms of technology and its capabilities, Marc Mancher, principal for federal automation at the consulting firm Deloitte, said during the Nov. 29 panel discussion “The Autonomy and Artificial Intelligence Capable Force: Evolving the Institutional Army.”

This change will include becoming more responsive and attractive to outside experts and others with the technical skills that an autonomous- and artificial intelligence-enabled Army will require, as well as fully comprehending the skill sets Army officers and troops will need to fully exploit these new technologies. That, in turn, will effect recruiting and training, several panelists noted.

Instead of broad, over-arching artificial intelligence solutions, the Army should focus on using “narrow AI” to help soldiers manage their attention, said Mark Valentine, a retired Air Force colonel now working for Microsoft.

“We've got a finite amount of human cognition that we can apply to any problem,” Valentine said. “The problem were trying to solve for is how do focus the human's cognition on what the human should be doing and take away the drudgerous tasks from the human and give that to the machine.”

In terms of deploying AI and autonomous vehicles and systems, the Army should take advantage of existing applications, said Marc Mancher, principal of federal automation for the consulting firm Deloitte. “Where can we actually implement these technologies to be effective now and not wait for the massive procurements and long lead times to get there?” Mancher asked.

That notion was echoed by Bill Veenhuis, a senior solutions architect with systems developer NVIDIA. “There's a lot that can be leveraged for the military,” Veenhuis said.

Other panelists included Michael Gray, a senior data scientist with the Army Analytics Group's Research Facilitation Laboratory, which was moderated by Brig. Gen. Joseph McGee, director of the Army's talent management task force.

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