Research teams at The Texas A&M University System’s George H.W. Bush Combat Development Complex (BCDC) and The University of Texas at Austin (UT) have begun a collaborative research effort to modernize the Army’s autonomous systems.
Both organizations have agreements with the U.S. Army Futures Command (AFC) and have been conducting research in various areas with the goal of delivering an end product for soldiers. Early-stage collaborations have been in the works for more than a year, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, most visits and collaboration opportunities were put on hold.
Now, with restrictions lifted, the teams are not wasting time.
Col. (Ret.) Patrick Seiber, former communication director for AFC and current BCDC director of public relations, said he was often asked if there was a possibility that robots developed at UT could later be tested at Texas A&M.
“The response then was, yes — in theory,” Seiber said. “This collaboration is putting the wheels in motion to make that theory a reality.”
“Both BCDC and UT bring their own levels of expertise into a roadmap to develop these technologies for the Army,” said Col. (Ret.) Brad Brown, director of outreach for BCDC. “So often, this research happens in a stovepipe where you have someone sponsoring the research, but you may not be in communication with other people or schools who are putting together different components of the same work — research that is eventually expected to fit together into a system.”
This degree of collaboration isn’t always normal in university research, but it is becoming increasingly essential, to be able to see and better understand what is going on in every direction and make the design and systems being put together fit more effectively.
“Integration is a serious challenge that the Army faces regarding technology development, primarily because so many things are developed in a silo,” Brown said.
He explains typical contract work this way: “Contract A develops A, and Contract B develops B. And when you get into actually producing the product, you bring them together and realize it doesn’t work,” Brown said. “So, then you have to create Contract C that creates a widget to connect A and B — and the more widgets you have to build in the middle of this, the more complicated the architecture is.
“So, it’s much better that the two elements work together at earlier stages of development to find ways to make the technologies snap together perfectly early on,” he added.
Early collaboration means finding out what works sooner and takes away the risk of both universities taking the time to develop technology that in the end, doesn’t mesh well together.
UT and BCDC are looking at different parts of the same problem in robotics and autonomy. UT’s research is more focused on the human-robot interfaces, teaming and long-term autonomy; BCDC is looking at the shared perception of multiple autonomous vehicles.
In other words, “we are working on how vehicles communicate with each other, and they’re working on how people communicate with the vehicles,” Brown said. “A collaboration between our two universities gets to the mission of AFC — which is to make things happen faster.”
The first steps in this collaboration are pairing UT’s technologies with BCDC’s test and evaluation teams, finding ways to demonstrate that technology in a more military-relevant environment while identifying and finding ways the technology both teams are working on could integrate more quickly.
The last step, Brown said, “is to find ways where we can move the ball forward, faster, in autonomy for modernizing the Army as we move through these collaborative events.”
UT Austin has different facilities than BCDC and vice versa. Through the collaboration, BCDC and UT can share resources to create the best system possible for the Army. For example, UT Austin’s Robotics Center of Excellence will provide an ideal urban testing setting, while BCDC’s Innovation Proving Ground (IPG) on The RELLIS Campus offers a military-relevant outdoor environment complete with fog, smoke, rain, mud, grass and trees.
“It is important for our two universities to work together toward the common goal of modernizing the U.S. military forces,” said Seth Wilk, director of the UT Austin Liaison Office to AFC. “This is a real opportunity to combine our forces to build a bigger Texas ecosystem, which transitions cutting edge research into the hands of our service members, faster. We look forward to continued collaboration with the Texas A&M team and are excited to pursue these transformative opportunities.”
“A collaboration between these two universities gets to the mission of AFC — which is to make things happen faster,” Brown added. “Getting the early collaboration and the integration of the technologies being developed in parallel means that the technology can be delivered to our service members much sooner, and much more effectively to support the mission.”
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