Department of Defense contract builds on University’s expertise in autonomous systems to include ground vehicles
The University of North Dakota, already a national leader in developing technology for unmanned aircraft, now is bringing its autonomous-technology expertise to ground vehicles – specifically, the Humvee, the iconic tactical vehicle widely used by the U.S. military.
The Department of Defense has awarded a contract for $5 million to UND and its research partners, AM General and ARA, to develop augmented reality (AR) systems for Army ground vehicles, Sen. John Hoeven’s office has announced.
The project’s goal is to enable soldiers operating or riding in Humvees, aka High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles, to view a broad range of battlefield data visually represented as an AR heads-up display on the windshield.
This involves determining the best methods for collecting available battlefield data, maintaining its security and displaying it in a manner that provides full battlefield situational awareness.
“The goal is that when the operator looks through the windscreen, he or she will see an augmented view of the world,” said Jeremiah Neubert, professor of mechanical engineering at UND and principal investigator on the Humvee project.
“The operator will be able to see road edges, buildings, obstacles, people, and so on. So operators can drive without lights at night, if they have to, or through dust storms or fog.
“With this work, UND is going to be right at the cutting edge of Heads-Up Display technology,” Neubert continued. “There will be no one with any more advanced technology than we’ll have, as this project proceeds.”
Moreover, projects such as this one act as catalysts, enabling UND to grow its augmented-reality capabilities, pursue other projects and make important connections that otherwise would not be possible, Neubert said.
Service to servicemembers
Mark Askelson, Executive Director of UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems, agreed. “Autonomy is one of UND’s Grand Challenges – one of the best ways for UND to help diversify North Dakota’s economy and enrich the quality of life,” he said.
“We’re proud to have pioneered the development of autonomous technology in aircraft, and we’re thrilled to now be doing the same in ground vehicles.”But even more rewarding is the sense of service that the Humvee work is delivering, Askelson said.
“At the end of the day, what really excites me about this work is us bringing our skill set to bear on problems are facing the Department of Defense,” he said. “We can solve these very real problems that are affecting people in the field. We can help the operators execute their missions with greater safety and more efficiency. And that gets all of us pumped up.”
UND’s Augmented Reality work will indeed help America’s troops on the ground, Hoeven said.
“UND and AM General have now been awarded a $5 million contract through funding we secured through the Defense Appropriations Committee. This project will help develop new systems for providing important data to our soldiers in their vehicles on the battlefield. This is critical support for our servicemembers, providing them with better awareness to counter threats and succeed in their missions,” said Hoeven.
“At the same time, this is an important opportunity to continue building UND’s research expertise and is part of our efforts to secure additional investment in our state’s tech industry, ensuring this sector continues serving as the third wave in North Dakota’s economic growth.”
Earlier this year, UND accepted delivery of a Humvee from AM General, the vehicle’s manufacturer. That Humvee now is housed in the Tech Accelerator Building on the western edge of campus.
Once UND researchers develop and install Autonomous Systems technology on the vehicle, extensive testing is likely to take place at AM General’s Proving Grounds and Testing Center, a 300-acre facility in South Bend, Ind.
Applied Research Associates (ARA), UND’s other research partner on the project, is an Albuquerque, N.M.-based company that offers science and engineering research on problems of national importance. “ARA is very excited to team up with the UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems on this program,” said William “Brother” Ratliff, Vice President of ARA’s Southeast Division. “UND has tremendous capabilities, in particular with environmental modeling, which complement ARA’s augmented reality technology. Together we can deliver some significant capability enhancements to soldiers operating in the field.”
A key element of UND’s work will be its multidisciplinary nature. “Within UND, engineering, aerospace and the College of Arts and Sciences will all be involved, as well as RIAS,” Askelson said.
For example, the Department of Psychology will be conducting human-factors research, analyzing such elements as Humvee operators’ eye movements, attention span and cognitive load.
Said Professor Neubert, “we want to make sure the Augmented Reality technology is not intrusive. We don’t want the technology to make people confused, in other words. It has to be something that’s really easy to pick up on, and that actually makes it easier for the operators to do their jobs.”
Phase One of the contract began earlier this year and will run through September. As a member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee, Hoeven secured the Phase One funding in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 appropriations bill, and has included an additional $5 million for Phase 2 in the Senate’s FY2021 funding legislation to further advance this research.
UND is grateful to Sen. Hoeven for helping to make the opportunity available, Askelson said. “It’s safe to say that if not for Sen. Hoeven’s leadership, UND would not be working on this project right now.”