By TOM KINGTON
There is something weird about driving in a mud spattered armored vehicle around a dusty shanty town built in a Paris car park on a Thursday lunchtime.
What is even weirder is that the vehicle – an Oshkosh M-ATV – is swerving round rocks and navigating gaps between shacks, although no-one is actually driving it.
While two technicians from Oshkosh on board are fiddling with computer screens while a third looks out of the window, no-one is touching the steering wheel, which spins back and forth, apparently of its own free will.
The team were giving the press a ride in their new Terramax autonomous vehicle at Eurosatory, the French land show in Paris which offers a vehicle testing range complete with steep inclines and mud huts to try out trucks, jeeps and armored vehicles.
The Terramax system consists of sensors that give a computer the means to ‘see’ the road ahead and decide how to get down it.
A spinning array of 64 lasers on the roof – the same used by Google in its driverless car — and five small radars around the sides of the vehicle provide the system with a composite, colored image of the vehicle’s surroundings, with red indicating objects too high for the vehicle to drive over.
On a lap top, a team member showed that image, as well as another that showed the road ahead, complete with possible routes the computer was weighing up as the best path to take.
The lasers have a 60 meter range and are good for detail but can be blinded by the dust, while the radars see out to 200 meters. Beyond that, the terrain is charted by GPS and aerial photos fed into the system.
As the test drive got under way, the technician in the driving seat turned on the engine, flipped a switch and sat back as the M-ATV, complete with mine roller, moved off, autonomously, to its first pre-programmed waypoint. Turning sharp left into a gully, it lurched to a brief halt. “As the route came into view it saw it needed to skootch over a bit,” said a team member.
When the vehicle gets to the edge of a 40 degree descent, it stops again, calculating the drop. “We go conservatively with the mine roller, since it is bit like pushing a shopping cart,” said one of the team.
Ten years into development, teamed with the US Marines and Army, Oshkosh is hoping the Terramax will be deployed in the next few years, possibly as a component in convoys including some manned vehicles.
Some issues still need attention, including the chance of someone scrambling on to the hood to spray paint on the lasers. But testing has also thrown up challenges the system has tackled successfully, including obeying traffic laws. “And when a deer ran in front of it, it duly stopped,” said a team member.
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