The British Army has embarked on a six-month experiment, working with industry, that will focus on the feasibility of automating supplies to soldiers.
This innovative experiment, known as Project Theseus, will determine which tasks in the crucial ‘last mile’ of the battlefield can be automated. This technology is expected to transform the Army of the future.
The UK Ministry of Defence is looking for an AI system that will enable the centralized autonomous operation of unmanned systems for combat missions both on the ground and in the air. It is hoped the use of self-driving air or ground platforms to deliver combat supplies – including ammunition, materials, food and fuel – will reduce the need for personnel to risk their life by entering into what are typically hostile environments.
In December 2021, after a long competition in which more than 100 companies took part, the UK MoD has selected three companies to demonstrate advanced AI-based combat logistic systems. Two Israeli companies (Rafael and IAI), and a British company (Horiba Mira) were eventually chosen. The tests will continue until April 2022.
Engineering consultants at Horiba Mira provide product engineering, research, testing, information, and certification services to the automotive sector.
The systems proposed by the Israeli contenders, Rafael and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), include technologies based on the combat experience of the Israeli defense forces (IDF).
An IAI official says the technology selected by the UK is a centralized "tasking" system that uses different unmanned systems for combat logistic missions. "We bring into the overall competition our AI combat-proven capabilities and our vast array of ground and aerial unmanned systems that will perform the logistic missions"
The third contender, Rafael, develops and produces weapons, military, and defence technologies for the Israel Defence Forces and for export abroad. The company recently demonstrated to the MoD an end-to-end system for planning and managing logistic resupply for units deployed on the battlefield. The company was subsequently awarded a contract for experimentation activity (Lot 1) for MoD Project THESEUS – a Joint Tactical Autonomous Resupply and Replenishment (JTARR).
The end-to-end system is directed by a single operator mission control and management system. By employing fully autonomous UAVs and UGVs, the system provides a unique and ground-breaking solution to the challenge of battlefield logistic resupply.
With an added focus of minimizing the number of forces in the combat arena through minimizing the manpower requirement, the system relies on fully autonomous unmanned air and ground platforms. These components are managed and controlled by a master mission management system, which is based on modern technologies including COMBAT AI, GPS-free navigation, and advanced image processing.
The AI is the basic layer. It will allow a single "computer" to make the right decisions of what, when and how to supply each unit in the combat zone with what it needs.
The logistics system, whose purpose is to perform delivery tasks to the tactical level, draws and gathers information from a variety of existing battlefield sources (such as BMS and various command and information systems) as well as from commanders and units in the field. The system then analyzes the information and uses it to generate meaningful logistic resupply tasks.
Through the AI algorithms, the main mission control and management system can select the most appropriate and efficient platforms for each task, and then plan the respective individual tasks. Simultaneously, the system plans the overarching task from a systemic standpoint.
Execution of the mission is carried out autonomously by each platform, without the need to risk human life. Moreover, mission accomplishment is enhanced and ensured by the built-in range of intelligent algorithms which allow the system to identify and autonomously adapt to deal with the wide array of obstacles and threats that can arise on the battlefield.
Developed utilizing the capability offered by autonomous platforms, and supported by autonomous control system decision making, the Rafael AI system is breaking new ground.
Shmuel Olansky, Head of multi-domain Warfare directorate at Rafael, says the solution requires fewer soldiers to perform logistical tasks – more efficiently and more safely than previous methods.
Talking with the program managers in Rafael, the scope of the program and its potential for more than supplying ammo and food to front line units becomes clear.
Michal Wermouth head of land autonomous systems unit in Rafael notes that the currently used logistic systems are complicated and slow. "Our systems allow unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) and drones to perform the mission." She explains that the system's "brain" analyzes all requests from the different combat zone units, and then computes all the different ways to bring the supplies, and ultimately the best platform to perform the mission. "A drone can make the way to an isolated fighting unit in 90 seconds and fly back to be reloaded."
Golan B, business development director in the land systems unit of Rafael, explains that the very advanced algorithm decides what to send, when and by what carrying platform. "In certain conditions the mission will be changed after it is launched, as more urgent resupply problems are identified in a different combat unit."
It was explained that the algorithm calculates the immediate resupply needs and all other factors to optimize the delivery safely and in the fastest way.
"The AI engine we developed in Rafael is the heart of the system. It’s the most advanced of its kind and based on the company's vast experience in using AI in a great number of our advanced weapon systems," the company official said.
While other companies may be focusing on the autonomous operation of a single vehicle, efforts at the Israeli company have been on interoperability with multiple different platforms and having commands delivered by a centralized automatic operation center. "The AI-based systems will lower the cognitive burden on the soldiers and enable them to concentrate in fighting while the logistic missions are performed by the systems " Golan B. said.
And while the focus is now on logistics, it is obvious that such an advanced AI-based system is also capable of controlling the growing number of autonomous ground fighting vehicles currently being developed around the world.
Arie Egozi is a defence-writer based in Tel Aviv.