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U.S. Military Launches AV, Smart City Pilot at Fort Carson

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center is leading an autonomous vehicle pilot project at Fort Carson in Colorado as part of a partnership with the nonprofit group US Ignite.

Smart city technologies aren't just for cities. Military installations may also be ideal settings for environmental sensors that comprise a great deal of smart cities work, as well as for next-generation transportation technology options like self-driving vehicles.

In fact, the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) is currently involved in a multiyear research project to understand how smart city technologies can be used and deployed in military installations. Some of that research will center on Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo. This specifically includes a two-year autonomous shuttle pilot project being developed for the base as a partnership among the military, the city of Colorado Springs, the University of Colorado Boulder and US Ignite, a nonprofit charged with growing smart city projects in communities across the country.

“The hope is that these technologies could lead to saving money and increasing efficiency, as well as improving the quality of life and safety for service members and their families,” said Col. Jim P. Allen, a program manager with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC).

US Ignite was awarded a $3.9 million contract by the ERDC to help the military explore how to integrate a shared AV shuttle into the community, serving on- and off-base shuttle needs. The project also includes testing other devices such as environmental sensors. Nick Maynard, chief strategy officer at US Ignite, said that both the city and base had been working on their own smart city strategies. He also said that his group's goal is to bring the two together, along with the local university, “to think about how they could collaborate on some of the smart city challenges they had both identified around transportation and public safety.”

The contract with ERDC was signed in the summer, with plans to have up to two shuttles operating by mid-2020. Ultimately, Maynard said the hope is that this two-year project will be extended for an additional two years.

The first phase of the research will focus on the military installation, with plans to eventually work more closely with the city of Colorado Springs on use cases that are compelling and applicable to both the military base and the city, all of which can be addressed by AVs. Also, the hope is that autonomous vehicle projects on military bases can drive innovation by exploring a range of other applications not generally found in the civilian world, such as accomplishing age-old tasks like delivering food to dining facilities, or fuel to an airfield.

The project will also explore the use of data, and data sharing among different entities like the city and the base, particularly as next-generation transportation platforms like ride-hailing, micro-mobility and other technologies become increasingly commonplace.

“Sometimes the military likes to think it can operate as an island,” Col. Allen said. “And the reality is they’re not. They’re a part of the community.

“There’s a lot of benefit to being a ‘smart base’” he added. “Even from a recruiting standpoint, people who grew up in smart cities don’t want to come work on a ‘dumb base.’ They’ve been used to transportation options, and they don’t want to spend half their paycheck running a car.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.