A New Kind of Air Support

Imagine being on the road and turning to the car beside you only to see that the car is empty and is driving on its own. Now imagine that car in some of the world’s most deadly war environments, able to move through mined roads with no danger being presented to its driver. Technology such as this is currently being developed by Micro Systems Inc. These advances in full-sized remotely controlled cars will take American soldiers out of harm’s way without sacrificing firepower on the front lines. This technology isn’t new; a lot of it comes from remote-controlled planes and missiles also developed by Micro Systems Inc.

Micro Systems Inc. was founded in 1976 and first began its work on guided missiles. Eventually the teams at Micro Systems began working on remote controlled fighter planes as well as other missile systems, but their work remained primarily in the sky. However, new demands have turned the company toward a new avenue: remote controlled ground vehicles.

“The community we work with is pretty small,” Business Development Manager Maynard Factor said. “We work with the Army, Navy, and Air Force and they’re all kind of doing the same thing,”

Micro Systems is unique in that every step of designing, building, and testing is done through different teams at Micro Systems. A client comes forward with an idea, the idea is then taken, designed, and if approved it is built. Teams have been known to build and rebuild customized computers to better adapt to whatever project currently being worked on. The workshop at Micro Systems is covered in computers resembling old 90’s futuristic shows; bulky, boxy, knobby pieces of metal that somehow contain the technology enabling one person to remotely fly several planes at once. There are of course swankier gadgets strewn about, sleeker in design but much more alien in appearance than the oddly familiar brown box computers.

After designing and building the current project, or sometimes at the same time, software engineers start to puzzle out how they are going to make the monstrous computers work or how they are going to make this piece of machine move the way it needs to. During this process, software and hardware engineers may go back and forth, meeting new demands that have come up from the other’s work. Ideas may have to be reworked or scrapped altogether. Micro Systems software engineer Troy Eberhart, having worked at the company for 15 years, knows this all too well, but he says, “There’s always a fire that comes up that you have to put out.” He laughed when he said it, as if putting out fires had become a specialty of his during his many years at the company. And once in a blue moon, everything goes smoothly and the project is ready for testing.

Micro Systems has a vast array of testing machines that determine environmental stresses placed on machines in flight. This includes extreme pressure, atmosphere changes, the shakiness of a jet taking off or landing, extreme temperatures, and so on. Computers are subjected to these tests to make sure they can withstand the environment they will have to function in. If something goes wrong, it’s back to the engineers to fiX. If it goes well, then more testing is done, tweaks are made to both the hardware and the software, and somehow at the end of the day, an airplane can be flown without a pilot sitting in it.

“It takes about a year from a nothing to a something,” Factor said.

A lot of the missiles and planes that Micro Systems has developed are used in training missions for military forces. A pilot can get practice shooting down a remote controlled missile or can guide a missile to strike a cardboard tank. One of the current goals of Micro Systems is to implement these same training techniques with their new remote controlled ground vehicles.

“We want to be able to do what we did with our air defense training with our ground defense training,” Factor said.

So far, Micro Systems has developed a system that can remotely operate a vehicle while still allowing a driver in the driver’s seat to operate it if necessary. The system is hooked up to the basic operations of the vehicle, such as the gear shift, gas, break, and steering wheel. It also includes a radio transmitter that allows the car to be controlled remotely up to ten miles away and a GPS that allows the operator to see where on a map the vehicle is located. The actual control of the vehicle is done through two screens, one showing the GPS coordinates, speed, heading, and other important details of the car’s movements and the other screen is connected to a camera that shoots out of the front of the vehicle, showing whatever might be in front of the car’s windshield. A steering wheel reminiscent of an arcade racing game is used to control the movements of the vehicle.

Currently, testing is being done with the remote control operator in an air conditioned unit with a safety driver inside the vehicle. Micro Systems has outfitted an Hummer H2 and other vehicles with this new system and there are plans to outfit Humvees and even tanks with the new technology, as well. Software Engineer David Oshana, who helped in developing the software used for the ground vehicles, said, “It’s way more stressful than a video game. When you’re driving the car remotely, there are so many more factors that you don’t feel. When you’re driving a car you make corrections subconsciously but remotely you don’t feel the car movement or the speed. You have to drive from a screen and that leaves a lot of blank spaces. And there’s usually a person in that car!”

Concern for the safety driver in the test vehicles is understandable, but there is a shiny red button that will disable the car for emergency situations.

Remote-controlled vehicles are not something that is so groundbreaking. Even Google is working on a car that can drive on its own. So what’s the difference between that and what Micro Systems is doing? The difference is that this isn’t the last step of their project.

“One of the big things that is coming up is the Route Clearing System,” Factor said. “We hope to use this technology on route clearing ground vehicles to keep our warfighters out of danger zones.”

Many injuries and casualties in war zones are caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This normally occurs when a vehicle triggers one of these devices. With the new technology developed at Micro Systems, route clearing vehicles sent to find and disarm such explosives may not even need to have a driver put in danger. This could potentially help to decrease the number of casualties and injuries caused by these IEDs.

As of right now, there is no overall AI that goes into these cars. The car cannot operate itself and has to have a driver, either sitting in it or controlling it from another location, to move. However, that is not to say that these cars will never be able to navigate on their own. With the car already hooked up to a GPS, it’s not so farfetched to think a car could use its coordinates and other nearby landmarked coordinates to move around an area on its own.

Factor also said, “There are sensors we can use that detect avoidable obstacles.” This suggests that some thought has gone into this and cars able to drive themselves may be a project Micro Systems will be working on in the near future.

Micro System has been part of many other exciting projects, one of which was a missile that could fly only feet above the ocean and could move up and down with the crests of waves. Advancements in these technologies can save the lives of American soldiers. To learn more about Micro Systems visit their website at kratos-msi.com.