An unmanned TerraMax mine-clearing vehicle, followed by equally unmanned TerraMax cargo trucks.

An unmanned TerraMax mine-clearing vehicle, followed by a mixed of manned and unmanned cargo trucks.

The future of military robotics may not look much like a robot. It may just be a truck that drives itself. That’s the simple, pragmatic approach pursued by Oshkosh — a company better known for trucks than Terminators — with its TerraMax Unmanned Ground Vehicle. But after eight years of experiments for three different military agencies, TerraMax can only get somewhere in the real world by proving its technology can adapt to many missions and many types of vehicles.

Now the company has made a major step towards that goal. After years of experimenting exclusively with cargo vehicles, it’s installed TerraMax on the M-ATV armored truck and equipped it to clear mines. With roadside bombs (known in the military as IEDs) certain to remain a major threat in future conflicts, and the M-ATV to remain in service long after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, that’s a much more compelling combination of platform and mission. What’s more, Oshkosh is moving to a more open architecture for the TerraMax software to make it easier to adapt to different platforms in the future.

“You really do design these kits so they’re relatively easy to install on any vehicle, especially modern vehicles where you have a digital connection” to the engine and controls, said John Beck, who runs the TerraMax program. In this case, he told me, they’re “applying the TerraMax UGV kit to an M-ATV with a mine roller on the front [for] the route-clearance mission.” (Oshkohsh’s M-ATV is the lighter, nimbler, Afghanistan-optimized “all terrain vehicle” cousin of the lumbering MRAP machines — “Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected” — first made famous in Iraq). In the future, Oshkosh wants to add ground-penetrating radar to help detect buried IEDs.

Oshkosh built the robotic M-ATV on its own dime. But the company was also recently awarded a contract from the Office of Naval Research to test TerraMax for the counter-IED mission. (Oshkosh wouldn’t specify the dollar value). The difference is the ONR is asking Oshkosh to put the technology on the standard Marine Corps cargo truck, the  MTVR: Oshkosh has already tested MTVRs with TerraMax, so the only new aspect to this contract would be the mission-specific equipment for mine-clearing, not the vehicle itself.

In fact, Oshkosh builds the MTVR itself and first installed TerraMax on one in 2004, when the self-driving truck competed DARPA’s 2004 robotics “grand challenge.”  Subsequently the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory picked up the project and experimented with using TerraMax MTVRs for unmanned supply convoys. Oshkosh has also done more limited tests installing TerraMax on two Army cargo trucks, the FMTV and PLS. But the Humvee-like M-ATV is a different class of vehicle and route-clearance a very different mission.

Migrating TerraMax from the six-wheel-drive MTVR to the four-wheel drive M-ATV was the easy part, Beck told me. “It’s fairly trivial,” he said. How does that work? Well, TerraMax has two major components:

The “drive-by-wire” system substitutes for a human driver’s hands and feet, electronically controlling the vehicle’s steering, throttle, and brakes. That part fits with modest modifications into any modern vehicle. (An old car with no computer chips in it is a different and more difficult matter).

Then there’s the “upper-level autonomy,” which substitutes for a human’s eyes and brain, telling the drive-by-wire system when to turn, accelerate, or brake based on sensor data, the navigation system, and collision-avoidance software. Co-developed with Carnegie Mellon University, this part just needs to know what kind of vehicle it’s driving. “You model the vehicle’s dynamics, parameterize that into the system, and you’re ready to go,” Beck told me.

Originally, the two parts of TerraMax were tightly linked, but now Oshkosh is moving towards an open-standard approach. That would let them upgrade or replace one without changing the other, making the technology markedly more adaptable.

Adapting TerraMax to the M-ATV is a big deal for Oshkosh, which is working hard to tout new variants of the vehicle on the international market now that America’s post-9/11 build-up is over. For everyone else, though, the bigger deal is getting a robot truck to help with the route clearance mission, and that’s the harder part of the problem that Oshkosh is still working on.

The unmanned TerraMax M-ATV with its mine roller.

The unmanned TerraMax M-ATV with its mine roller.

On the most basic level, bolting on the mine roller — which has to be heavy enough to survive setting off a mine — affects how the vehicle handles. “This big thing hanging off the front… changes the way that the vehicle needs to maneuver through its environment,” Beck said.

Clearing a road or track also requires TerraMax to interact in new ways with both the physical environment and other vehicles. The cargo version can already play follow-the-leader as part of a manned convoy and avoid collisions. In one unplanned test of the system, for example, a young Marine stupidly stepped in front of a speeding TerraMax truck, but the robot slammed the brakes in time. A counter-IED vehicle, however, needs to keep formation as part of a team of vehicles of different types, recognize when its sensors have detected a threat, and, when necessary, hit the brakes and inform the humans. Not even Beck has ambitions yet to install some kind of robot arm on the TerraMax vehicle so it can try to defuse a bomb itself — at least, not yet.


  • Gary Church

    Ten years too late.

    Where were these machines when Rummy was telling future IED victims “you go to war with the army you have.”

    It is encouraging however, that a lowly army national guard specialist got the secretary of defense fired by exposing him in public. One of the most under-reported cases of a whistle-blower completely wrecking the schemes of a sleazy defense profiteer. Of course no one ever called Rummy that even though that is exactly what he was; promoting hi-tech, hi-profit items over the low tech not-so-profitable items necessary to keep our soldiers from dying. He should have went to prison.

    • Jon

      Do you ever shut up?

      • Mike

        What’s the matter Jon, don’t you like being reminded of how much money special interests made on those wars with Rummy at the controls and ole Draft Dodger Dick pushing on the gas pedal? Doesn’t it still gall you that these jackals absolutely turned their backs on the lives of our soldiers and Marines while making huge profits for Halliburton and ole Draft Dodger’s stock options? If you served and still have a soul, it should bother you to this day… Perhaps one of the programs at the VA, that is if you ever went in harm’s way and if you ever served?

        • Gary Church

          There are people on this forum that really dislike me. Oh well. Friends come and go, enemies accumulate.

          • Mike

            Screw thoes “enemies” and keep telling the truth, aye?

          • Gary Church

            I seem to pick the issues that really really hit nerves. Writing that surface combatants cannot survive against anti-ship missiles drives a certain group crazy. Stating the F-35 and V-22 are junk drives another fan clubs nuts. Criticizing SpaceX saddled me with a cyberstalker who will not leave me alone. And the idea that cheerleading the defense industry is not necessarily patriotic makes many more unhappy.
            I don’t care. I am trying to improve my writing skills so the more they whine they more practice I get:)

          • Gary Church

            I mean, THE more practice I get:(

  • DanaJRobertson

    “This big thing hanging off the front… changes the way that the vehicle needs to maneuver through its environment,” Beck said.

    • Gary Church

      This is some kind of advertisement spam engine and needs to be deleted

  • Don Bacon

    This mine roller might work on pressure-detonated mines, but many IED are command-detonated, using a wire, radio signal etc.

    • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

      Hi Don? If you found and IED would a water hose as a fireman’s set it off?

      • ycplum

        The definitive answer is “maybe”. An IED covers such a wide range of devices, that you just can’t say. It is like asking if an aircraft can lift 10 people. Depends on the aircraft.

    • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

      Don one more thing. Can an Abrams tank stand up to an IED explosion?

      • ycplum

        Depends on the IED and how close it is to the M!A1 when it detonates. Some IEDs are made with a 155 mm artillery shell. As long the M!A1 does run over the IED or comes too close, the crew may still survive. I mean, the track can be blown away and the 70 ton vehicle tossed a few yards, but the crew may survive with some blown eardrums and broken bones.

  • hooker

    it would be easy for a “bad guy” on a fast motorbike to “kill” mr robot!

    • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

      He should be on his feet, should be nothing running but US Army vehicles in an area we think is not secure. That manned vehicle though, maybe it can be in contact with a drone so if Mr. Bad Guy kill’s mr robot then the Bad Guy gets to join him in the Robot Christian Heaven. If it is one of the Islamist radicals I guess 17 toasters still in the box will be waiting there for him.

  • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

    If they shape the vehicle with a V bottom wouldn’t that do a lot to limit the damage. I’ve never understood why once we go in camera’s are not all up around watching the road, be nobody out there planting a IED, be no vehicles out there but our Army vehicles moving around. But the Gov would rather waste lives and let the Biz World run as usual in a place where your security is very weak. Things as Iraq should have took 10 to 20 years to get in order and the civilians need to know they will suffer until that security is not very weak. In the end Iraq and both Afghanistan will revert right back to what they was, a bed for radicals to train, broadcast and cause problems for the people there and in other spots. A robot vehicle is neat but once it comes through the area the camera’s should go up for any following vehicle with humans in it. Our gov, the tech age and no camera’s everywhere, that seems a crime in itself.

  • mijsenrab

    Has anyone thought how this convoy of un-manned trucks carrying cargo to the front lines is going to keep from being captured and their cargoes taken? Hackers have yet to have an opportunity but it will come.

    • ycplum

      Of the top of my head:
      First few trucks are unmanned, but you can have the next few armed. Or, possibly armed drone escorts.

  • 10579

    One well aimed round in the eye/brain and you have the roadway blocked and a dead truck.

    • Gary Church

      Same with a driver.

      • 10579

        they would need another person who knows how to disable the tech on the truck so that a person could move it or maybe use a robot tank to push it off the road. but if not robotic another person could jump in the truck if it isn’t damaged to where it wont move,and get it off or continue on with its mission.

  • jgelt

    I think a lot of people are missing the obvious here. Even if you don’t like the mission profile presented, others are inferred. In safer areas men will be freed up to be soldiers. In not so safe areas, drivers can be shooters who only occasionally have to monitor the driving function. Those two things make this worth the purchase. Awful smart of Oshkosh to build something that works on existing vehicles rather than building a robot from scratch. Also, taking out the robot may not always take out the truck. Unless it says otherwise, it would seem that a dead or blind robot could be taken over by a driver in a pinch.

  • Larry A. Altersitz

    Thw “Warlock” anti-IED system interfered with wireless command detonated mines. My middle son used them with 2-5 Cav/2BCT/1CD during several of his tours in Iraq. If the sensor system and controls aren’t easy to spoof/hack, the danger drops quite a bit.

    Fast-moving light attackers can be dealt with via Vietnam-era “mini-mores” that spray steel balls like a claymore, but used in cigarette pack-sized mines around the vehicle. If you’re going to have sensors and aerial overwatch, this makes responding a lot quicker and cheaper. And every MSR, once established, should be under 24/7/365 observation via eyeballs and sensors. Westmoreland in Vietnam used the 18th and 20th Engineer Brigades to clear back jungle and forests from the main roads to a distance over 100m. If the VC/NVA couldn’t get real close, their accuracy and effectivness went down a good deal.

    I’d almost think that mini-mores on racks angled skyward, tied into a sensor net, will be needed to defeat kamikaze UAVs that will be used.

    • Mike

      Thanks for the “heads-up” from the current and past battlefields….. And yes, I agree that we owe Oshkosh a thank you and probably a contract…. They build good stuff and have for a long time…

      • Stacy

        Too bad with all this news they are planning on laying off over 700 employees in the next 30 days….

        • Gary Church

          That is what happens when the rich are allowed to buy the politicians. Everything goes overseas for slave labor. More profit. Our last textile factory in the U.S. closed down last year if I recall. We do not manufacture any fabric goods anymore. We make little steel compared to the millions of tons of battleship armor we could roll out after world war II. All those factories have closed. Detroit is a bankrupt sea of derelict houses. We have a shipyard or two making warships. We build fighter planes and our airliner industry has huge labor problems because they lay off the work force every time a contract expires so the unions demand higher pay. The super corporations are assimilating more and more of the population and pretty soon there will be no more small businesses. The infrastructure is deteriorating while taxes on the rich are at a historic low and due to shelters corporations pay virtually nothing while wearing out the roads, bridges, and waterways. There are no more family farms to speak of. Factory farming becomes more science fiction every year with antibiotics and genetic modifications in a bath of of pesticides. Everything has changed due to greed and bought politicians. De-regulation has become a license to steal and pollute. Thank you Ronny Reagan.

          Yet any talk of protectionism, of unions, of tariffs that would reduce the profits of the corporations get’s shouted down as communism. Ridiculous. Americans must be the stupidest creatures in history.