Driverless Shuttles at Fort Bragg Boast Autonomous Future

The only thing the shuttle can’t do, officials joked, is tell when another driver is waving it through an intersection.

by Drew Brooks, The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. / April 10, 2017

(TNS) -- The safest vehicle on Fort Bragg in North Carolina doesn’t have a driver.

At least, not in the traditional sense.

Officials with the Army’s Applied Robotics for Installations and Base Operations project, or ARIBO, announced Thursday that they had moved forward with plans to operate fully autonomous shuttles on Fort Bragg, a first for any U.S. military post.

The shuttles are part of a pilot program that was begun in 2015, testing the use of two, six-passenger, robot-driven carts that carry soldiers between the Warrior Transition Battalion barracks and Womack Army Medical Center.

In the early days of the pilot, human drivers remained behind the wheel while a computer collected data and ran simulations. Researchers compared what humans did in certain situations with what the computer would have done and tweaked their program accordingly.

The results are a robot-driven shuttle that can sense other vehicles, stop at stop signs and safely pass pedestrians using a mix of cameras, sensors, lasers, radar, lidar and GPS.

The only thing the shuttle can’t do, officials joked, is tell when another driver is waving it through an intersection.

Edward Mottern, director of programs at Robotic Research, said officials recently put the robot in charge after getting permission from Fort Bragg leaders.

A driver remains in the shuttle, Mottern said. The driver is there as a safety precaution for the next few months, after which officials expect the shuttle to go fully autonomous.

Robotic Research, a Maryland-based company, is the prime civilian contractor for ARIBO, which is a public-private partnership that also involves the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center at Detroit Arsenal, Michigan; and the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland.

Officials with those agencies said testing to this point — which included close to 1,000 trips between the barracks and the medical center — have been focused on safety, both for riders and for “non-users,” i.e. pedestrians, drivers of other vehicles and cyclists.

“It’s a living laboratory,” said Kristin E. Schaefer-Lay, an engineer with the Army Research Laboratory.

Schaefer-Lay has been focused on the human-robot interaction within the ARIBO project.

She said that interaction was key. Because even if the robot is programed perfectly, there’s no telling whether human drivers will follow traffic laws.

Ultimately, Schaefer-Lay said, officials want soldiers to trust the vehicle. But they also want drivers to be comfortable on the road beside it.

Officials said the data being collected at Fort Bragg is laying the foundation for future autonomous vehicle projects across the Army.

“Everything we’re doing is transferable to other programs,” Schaefer-Lay said. “Autonomous vehicles are part of the Army’s future, not just at home, but in theater, too.”

The next large ARIBO project will be autonomous buses at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, that will ferry soldiers training there to dining facilities at set times, Mottern said. That’s expected to save the installation $2 million by helping it better stagger dining hours.

The first autonomous bus is expected to be delivered to Leonard Wood later this month, Mottern said. It will use the same technology that began to be developed on Fort Bragg more than two years ago.

The technology also will likely be used to develop autonomous convoys to help resupply forces in war zones.

More than 2,000 troops and civilians have died after coming under attack amid long convoys in dangerous locations like Iraq and Afghanistan, said Jeffrey M. Barghout, CEO of the Raleigh-based Robocist, a mobility and robotic consulting company that is part of the ARIBO project.

Autonomous vehicles can save some of those lives by getting troops off the road, he said.

The pilot program at Fort Bragg is laying the groundwork for those efforts by providing data and feedback.

“It’s a learning process,” Barghout said. “What we’re learning here — we can take all this information and expand it. We are building collective knowledge.”

On Thursday, officials announced big plans for the ARIBO project at Fort Bragg.

By the end of the year, Mottern said, officials expect to have upgraded the driverless shuttles to large passenger vans. That would allow the project to integrate an automated wheelchair boarding system. It also could lead to officials expanding the shuttle route to roads on post with more traffic.

Mottern said the expanded system could include the Soldier Support Center and other Army facilities in a new, larger route.

Alex Jimenez, a TARDEC mechanical engineer and ARIBO program manager, said the Army is spending millions of dollars on robotic research, but it could be 10 to 15 years before those new technologies are seen on a battlefield.

The ARIBO project was aimed at harnessing those technologies today, supporting base operations and providing needed services in the process.

At Fort Bragg, soldiers are already using smartphone applications, ridearibo.com and kiosks at the Warrior Transition Battalion barracks and Womack Army Medical Center to schedule trips between the barracks and the hospital’s main entrances, behavioral health facility and orthopedics and rehabilitation.

Officials have said the shuttle helps wounded warriors navigate post and has cut down on the number of missed medical appointments.

Spc. Sean-Michael Vail Horn, a soldier still getting used to a new prosthetic right leg, said there’s little doubt it’s made his life easier.

“It’s quite convenient,” he said.

There are more than 160 soldiers assigned to Fort Bragg’s Warrior Transition Battalion, including 65 living in the barracks. Horn said covering the third-of-a-mile between the barracks and the hospital isn’t always easy.

“Not everybody can drive,” he said. “Not everybody can walk.”

The soldier said he wasn’t concerned about the lack of a driver.

“I trust these people,” he said. “They wouldn’t let us get into it if it wasn’t safe.”

Horn said he hoped the shuttle route would eventually expand to include shopping and dining options on post. In the meantime, he was grateful for the efforts underway.

“I really do appreciate it,” he said.

©2017 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.