Robotic mule

The DGA French procurement agency is asking industry how it thinks the intelligence of autonomous platforms is going to evolve. Or, put more simply, how are unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) going to make the shift from being remotely controlled — which limits the distance they can be from the operator to about 1km — to being autonomous? How can a UGV cope with the dips and bumps on-road, and the even more severe conditions off-road? How does it “see” if somebody, a child for example, steps out in front of it? These are all questions that need answers and the EOR Mule programme (to be launched once companies, or groups of companies, have expressed their interest) might supply some of them.

Le Robbox version Mule tel qu'il avait été présenté il y a deux ans. Depuis il a évolué par pouvoir répondre à d'autres missions. (Crédit illustration: Sera)

The Robbox Mule as it first appeared two years ago. Since then it has been developed to undertake many other missions (Illustration: Sera)

EOR Mule has to be an autonomous vehicle to carry the munitions, food, water etc., for a platoon. It must be air-transportable.

A number of industrial groupings interested in competing for the EOR Mule programme have already been set up. One of these includes Nexter Robotics, Thales Optronics, the Institute St. Louis and Sera. The latter, which has designed and built the vehicle platform known as Robbox, is a small and medium enterprise of just 15 people. As Stéphane Trochet, head of the design bureau, told FOB: “we are the skeleton and the muscles, the brain is in the hands of our partners.” The brain is the software that will answer the questions posed in my opening paragraph.

The 1.75m high, 1.64m wide Robbox can either be powered by two 12.5kW diesel engines, one at either end, or 15kW electric ones (using Li-ion batteries) or both in a hybrid version. “This means that for the last kilometre the UGV can run silently and stealthily,” Gaël Bielecki, Sera’s deputy director, explained. Each motor can run for 300km giving the UGV total autonomy of 600km so that even if it can only be remotely controlled from about 800m away, the platoon would not have to worry about finding fuel for it for quite a while. The electric version has an autonomy of 80km. It has a top speed in remote controlled mode of 40 kph but can be towed by another vehicle at up to 90 kph.

The 750kg vehicle is completely symmetrical so does not need to turn around. It has no option for an on-board driver and the central mission module, which can weigh up to 750kg, can be placed either over or/and under the main frame.

Although the prototype was initially designed as a mule, the company has since further developed the concept either on its own or in partnership with Nexter Robotics. Robbox could act as a mothership to smaller UGVs that it would carry or be used as a platform for RPASs (remotely piloted air systems).

But above all it can carry all sorts of payloads (even weapons), notably those to detect and safely dispose of IEDs.

Robbox carrying a ground penetration radar and a metal detector for counter-IED missions. (Illustration: Serpa)

Robbox carrying a ground penetration radar and a metal detector for counter-IED missions. (Illustration: Sera)

These have caused more allied troop deaths in Afghanistan and Africa than direct combat. Because IEDs are cobbled together by insurgents, each is unique and thus much more difficult to detect and dispose of than land or personnel mines that are a known quantity. As Sera’s director Sylvain Crosnier puts it: “IEDs are an uncalibrated threat. Whilst mines can be safely disposed of in 99% of cases, that is far from the case with IEDs.”

The DGA has thus launched a very long-term study: SOI (système d’ouverture d’itinéraire or system for securing itineraries) to try and find equipment that could be deployed in 25 years or so to detect and neutralise IEDs with the same success rate as mines. The challenges for industry are huge: how to detect simple wires (actually, that’s already nearly done), detect electronics (something electronic in a pile of rocks is rarely good news), detect plastic (the data gathered by current ground radars only tells you the continuum of the ground is broken but it could be by a stone, a pothole that has been filled etc.,)?