Support: The RACER Program


May 9, 2024:   DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense. DARPA does research on future systems for the army, navy, air force and marines.  For example, DARPA’s RACER (Robotic Autonomy in Complex Environments with Resiliency) program successfully tested autonomous movement on a larger new vehicle using the RACER technology for efficiently moving a vehicle over terrain without the need for a human driver. The RHP (RACER Heavy Platform) vehicle was used for the test. RHP is a 12-ton, nine meter long vehicle that steers like a tank. That is, the threads on one side are speeded up to turn the vehicle, a process known as skid-steering. Also tested was the two-t0n, five meter long RFV (RACER Fleet Vehicle) that uses the wheeled steering technology found on automobiles and trucks. The RACER program seeks to develop technology that can make wheeled vehicles more reliable when traversing rough or broken terrain.

In late 2023 RACER successfully tested its first completely autonomous vehicle. That is, a vehicle without a human driver on board as a backup if the autonomous navigation system failed.

The Racer program will build larger and heavier vehicles that can use the RACER technology to successfully move autonomously over a wider variety of terrain. RACER tests in 2024 mark the 20th anniversary of DARPA work on this sort of unmanned vehicle navigation capabilities. That effort began in 2004 with the first of the Grand Challenge competitions in which anyone, academic or commercial organizations, could submit their autonomous vehicle designs to try and navigate a path through increasingly larger areas that included a wider variety of terrain types. Each year progress was made and the process went faster because of the competition and cost a lot more than if the project were given to just one contractor.

One of the first successes was the wheeled robotic Mule (Multifunctional Utility/Logistics and Equipment vehicle) that carried nearly a ton of equipment into the combat zone to support troops that needed continuous supplies of food, ammunition and much else. The Mule required only a single soldier to lead one or more Mules along to where the supplies were needed. The human leader of the Mules automatically chooses the best terrain to move through. The next goal of the Racer program is to build an autonomous vehicle that requires no human guides. You just put supplies on a Mule and give it the location of where it must deliver the supplies. The next generation Mule would then find its way to the objective using its own autonomous navigation system. No human guidance required.

In addition to seeking full autonomy, the Mule tech also seeks to increase the speed of the autonomous vehicles over terrain the Mule had never encountered before. Currently Mules can memorize a route initially laid out by a soldier leading a Mule.

The recent Grand Competitions have involved sending small robotic vehicles going underground to map tunnel systems or make it possible for unmanned vehicles to reconnoiter an area and report what is there, including how many civilians and where they are. If hostile forces are encountered, that is reported as well and the autonomous vehicle tries to withdraw without being damaged or disabled by enemy fire.

Future developments in autonomous vehicle technology would include the ability to detect and report where enemy fire is coming from and what kind of fire it was: infantry weapons, artillery, grenades, landmines or whatever. Walking vehicles are also being developed to handle particularly difficult terrain.




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