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Wood-burning robotic trucks could be part of Army's future

By: Tony Peck
March 11, 2018 Updated: March 13, 2018 at 12:03 pm
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Dr. Jaret Riddick is the newest director for the Army Research Laboratory's Vehicle Technology Directorate. Riddick and his team research technologies for future soldiers. The lab focuses on vehicle autonomy, engines and fuel efficiency, future vehicle designs, and logistics. (ARMY PHOTO)

Editor's Note: The article was edited to clarify that liquid fuel derived from wood-pulp and other "bio-mass" could power future machines being researched at Army Research Laboratory. 

Efficient drones with "intelligent" engines and ground vehicles burning liquid fuel from processed wood-pulp are part of the Army's vision of a fully modernized force, according to a top Army researcher.

Dr. Jaret Riddick is the newest director for Army Research Laboratory's Vehicle Technology Directorate in Maryland.

"Our mission is to work on basic and applied research," Riddick said. "Technology for the warfighter of 2030 and 2035 and beyond."

The vehicle lab develops its futuristic technology by focusing in four areas - vehicle autonomy, engine and fuel efficiency, vehicle designs, and logistics.

Riddick pointed to drones as a perfect example of a system where his lab can apply all four areas of research.

The lab is researching a hybrid drone engine capable of alternating between a combustion engine and battery power, Riddick said. The engine is also "intelligent" enough to tweak its settings to burn fuel more efficiently.

That means the engine can tune internal pressure and fuel spray volume on its own, Riddick said.

The hybrid function also allows the drone to switch to battery power for silent operations, he said.

These capabilities have an impact behind the front lines, too, Riddick said. Burning fuel more efficiently lifts the logistical burden the Army faces on deployments. A smaller logistical footprint means less fuel is needed and fewer soldiers are required to support the mission.

Another way that the lab is handling future logistical issues is highlighted by the Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport - designed to autonomously carry equipment and supplies for several soldiers.

"One of the primary parts of the mission for the squad level unmanned vehicles is to remove the burden of the soldier," Riddick said.

During foot patrols, soldiers find themselves isolated and far removed from any base with fuel supplies, presenting a challenge for conventional combustion engines.

"Duration of the mission is a challenge," Riddick said. "They are often controlled by power and energy."

The solution: liquid fuel from process wood-pulp or any organic material that can burn, Riddick said.

Riddick and his team are developing engines that will consume liquid fuel derived from raw materials from the soldier's environment, he said.

But drones with "intelligent" engines and autonomous gear carriers need to work in tandem with soldiers, often in complex formations or dangerous conditions. The way to bring robot and soldier together is called manned-unmanned teaming, and it is another focus of the lab.

"The expected result is to provide the future warfighter with an autonomous system that operates as a teammate and can transport material as supplies, and enhance situational awareness by supporting the communication, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission," Riddick said in a statement.

Advancing manned-unmanned teaming could allow drones and other autonomous ground vehicles to act as the "tip of the spear," protecting soldiers from first contact with the enemy, Riddick said in the statement.

And since the technology Riddick and his team work on could save the lives of soldiers, speed and efficiency are essential to the lab's mission.

"The major question that is facing everyone in the department is how do we get technology into the hands of the soldiers faster?" Riddick said.

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