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DSTL Leads the Autonomous Charge

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The UK’s Defence forces are entering an era of significant change, as outlined in the UK government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy and the Defence Command Paper. The Army will receive significant investment in order to become more agile, integrated, lethal and expeditionary.

The Command Paper states that: “The Army of the future will be leaner, more lethal, nimbler, and more effectively matched to current and future threats. The new structure will reorganise the Army into more self-sufficient Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) able to meet demand by drawing on their own dedicated logistics and combat support units.”

Dominating territory will remain a principle of warfare, and the light brigade is likely to be widely dispersed to reduce vulnerability to fires, so resupply will be an increasing challenge. Key factors in any solution will be to reduce un-necessary risk to soldiers engaged in resupply tasks, improve the efficiency of resupply and provide the commander with increased operational flexibility.

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) has been researching the potential utility of autonomous systems for resupply operation to provide greater capability and utility for the Army. Exploiting the rising capability of commercial ‘delivery drones’ and self-driving car technology, The Autonomous Last Mile Resupply (ALMRS) project, run by Dstl through the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) with the Army, looked at a wide range of innovative systems to explore how these might enhance battlefield logistics. Prototypes were successfully demonstrated as part of the Army Warfighting Experiment 2018, leading to Project THESEUS.

Project THESEUS, the development and operational field experimentation of autonomous logistic resupply systems, was announced by the Secretary of State for Defence in March 2019, following the progress made by the innovative Autonomous ‘Last Mile’ Challenge led by Dstl. Project THESEUS, now being led through the DE&S Future Capabilities Group (FCG) with Dstl support, aims to define and deliver an end-to-end automated ground and air resupply network, enabled by a logistic information system, available 24/7 in all weather conditions.



As an early part of Project THESEUS, two contracts collectively worth £5 million were awarded in March 2020 to HORIBA MIRA and QinetiQ to produce a number of uncrewed ground vehicles (UGVs) and enabling autonomous systems as part of advancing Ministry of Defence (MOD) Transformation Fund commitments for the British Army.

The contracts form part of early de-risking work to increase the MOD’s understanding of the capabilities of these systems in areas such as mobility and safety, enabling the Army to take the project to the next stage. Alongside other Army RAS projects, these contracts demonstrate the continued commitment to progressing Robotic and Autonomous Systems as innovative approaches for developing future Land force capability. These systems will be used to undertake a series of technical evaluations and user utility assessments with the British Army and other users to rapidly advance MOD’s understanding under the ‘Prototype Warfare’ agenda.

With a view to future interoperability in mind, Dstl has also conducted a number of in-depth trials both in the UK and with our partners in the US as part of the Coalition Assured Autonomous Resupply collaboration.

Colonel Matthew Ware, Interim Head of Capability for Combat Service Support said:

“Robotic and Autonomous Systems will provide commanders with more options to support a Land force operating at greater reach, dispersal and higher tempo. We look forward to ongoing collaboration with Dstl, wider Defence, and our strategic and commercial partners as we drive forward this ground-breaking and exciting project.”

In early 2021, Dstl received delivery of the two UGV types each capable of carrying payloads of up to 750kg to frontline troops. Three all-terrain VIKING 6x6 UGVs, supplied by HORIBA MIRA use advanced AI-based autonomy, based on visual terrain recognition to enable GPS-denied navigation. Two TITAN UGVs comprise a tracked system based around a modular mission system software architecture, employing LIDAR and stereo vision as the primary means to detect its environment. Experimentation and testing of these differing systems will inform further understanding of the capabilities that these autonomous systems can provide and implications for their integration with the wider defence logistics system.

The vehicles are now being used by Dstl to conduct scientific and user trials with the Combat Service Support Training and Development Unit (CSS TDU) based in Aldershot, and other British Army units. The work will seek to increase understanding of system potential and limitations to reduce the risks specific to acquisition of the Joint Tactical Autonomous Resupply and Replenishment (JTARR) capability, but will also develop deeper knowledge for the Army’s future employment of more advanced autonomous system capabilities.

Guy Powell, Dstl’s Principal Technical Authority, said:

“The Dstl THESEUS JTARR aims to inform requirements, benefits and opportunities associated with Robotic and Autonomous Systems and to understand their maturity and robustness to operation in complex and contested environments.”

Robert Mohacsi, Senior Commercial Manager for Defence Systems at HORIBA MIRA, said:

“Autonomous systems present the British Army with game changing capabilities, redefining how we will conduct future operations. Building on more than a decade of experience in deploying autonomous technology into military applications, HORIBA MIRA has applied an agile and fast track approach that will enable the Army to field this equipment and meet its critical objectives. We are immensely proud that VIKING, with its market leading capability, has been selected to support this critical programme.”

Speaking on award of the contract, Mike Sewart, Director for Research Experimentation and Innovation for QinetiQ said:

“Working to the principles of “Prototype Warfare”, as adopted by the British Army, the Joint Tactical Autonomous Resupply and Replenishment (JTARR) risk-reduction contract is a prime example of how QinetiQ is taking an agile approach to delivering solutions into the hands of the military for evaluation whilst continuing spiraled capability development.”

The Viking and Titan UGVs are also hybrid electric drive vehicles with stored on-board power and, along with larger electric systems that are being trialed by the Army on the Foxhound and Jackal vehicles, reaffirms the MOD’s commitment to tackling climate change.

Author: Pete Stockel, Dstl Fellow, Technology Strategy Lead - Autonomous Systems

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