In recent years, the use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) has become more widely accepted for civilian, industrial and military applications. These autonomous vehicles require advanced communication systems for guidance and control, so when the Ministry of Defence (MOD) initiated a programme in 2011 to explore UGV capabilities and reduce the involvement of personnel in logistics operations, cutting-edge innovation and technology was a key priority.
The purpose of the MOD’s ‘Unmanned
Distribution Capability’ (UDC) initiative was to marry the latest innovations from industry with internationally-recognised research expertise from academia – and that is where Coventry University’s credentials came to the fore.
A joint team of researchers from the Faculty of Engineering, Environment and Computing’s Digital Security and Forensics (SaFe) research group and Control Theory and Applications Centre (CTAC) were successful in securing a grant under the UDC initiative, making Coventry one of the only academic partners involved in its development.
The Solution and Approach
Coventry University’s team devised an intelligent control and guidance system for unmanned logistics vehicles based on the concept of ‘fuzzy logic’, which is a form of artificial intelligence. Through this system, the UGVs can ‘talk’ to each other to enable smart, autonomous clustering of vehicles – essential for convoys of logistics vehicles delivering supplies in unpredictable circumstances.
By creating a simulation of the kinds of environment in which a convoy of unmanned military vehicles might typically be deployed, the research team could assess the efficiency of their system in numerous scenarios, including changeable terrain and climate conditions, different threat levels, and even how a vehicle would remain on course if it lost its connection with the convoy.
Following on from the success of this first part of the project, the team was invited to work on a second phase designed to meet two further priorities for the MOD.
The first priority was a human factors analysis of unmanned vehicles, in acknowledgement of the fact that such vehicles are in most cases still being operated by two service people. Human factor analyses are critical as they provide valuable insight into the cognitive load placed on personnel in the cabin of a semi-autonomous vehicle. CTAC’s team used an advanced 3D simulation engine as a development environment, the high degree of realism ensuring that the researchers could focus their efforts on designing suitable experiments to assess the impact of human factors in unmanned vehicles and gather the data relevant to the MOD’s requirements.
A second priority for the MOD – and one which Coventry University will be investigating as part of the UDC initiative’s second phase – is the exploration of Health and Usage Monitoring Systems (HUMS) data from unmanned vehicle platforms, and how to make best use of such information. The data has the potential to more effectively inform the vehicle control system, allowing it to be more efficient and sensitive both to its own diagnostics and to external conditions.
The University’s involvement with and work on the MOD’s Unmanned Distribution Capability programme has led to the creation of a novel fuzzy logic-based controller for UGVs and a unique simulator for a UGV convoy in military environments.
This kind of science underpins the UK military’s ability to become a smart and agile force, helping them stay ahead in the game. The implications around logistics and cost for the military are significant, reducing the need for extensive pre-planning on combat logistic patrols and immediate replenishment groups while also reducing the level of manual guidance needed – as a direct result of which fewer personnel are exposed to risks during material distribution.
Both the SaFe Group and CTAC have also been involved in similar logistics research and development projects for the industry. The SaFe Group led the academic partnership on the TSB/EPSRC funded Efficient and Reliable Transportation of Consignments (ERTOC) project which investigated efficient and reliable supply chain networks for consignment delivery. CTAC have similarly been involved in a range of projects including Decision Support for Operational Supply Chain Management and Control in the Presence Of Uncertainty, by EPSRC.
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