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The F-150 prototype developed for the DoD allowed Kodiak to modularize the AV software and hardware to be compatible with a variety of different vehicles. (Kodiak Robotics)

Kodiak adapts autonomous tech for military vehicles

The Kodiak Driver system encounters unique challenges installed in an F-150 military truck prototype and an upcoming purpose-built uncrewed vehicle.

Kodiak Robotics launched its first autonomous military prototype vehicle in December 2023 – a Ford F-150 upfitted with the Kodiak Driver autonomous system. Developed for the Department of Defense (DoD), the vehicle runs the same software as Kodiak’s autonomous long-haul trucks but with more-robust DefensePod enclosures for the sensors.

Now the company is collaborating with Textron Systems to develop a purpose-built uncrewed military vehicle designed without space for a driver and intended for advanced terrain environments. The companies plan to demonstrate driverless operations later in 2024. “The initial integration work is largely being done at a Textron Systems facility in Maine, with testing planned at Kodiak facilities,” Kodiak’s chief technology officer Andreas Wendel told SAE Media Group. He shared his thoughts on the “immense” potential for autonomous technology in tactical vehicles.

Any unique considerations applying your system to military ground vehicles?
These vehicles are being specifically designed to handle complex military environments, including unfinished roads, unstructured off-road terrain, and areas with limited or degraded communications or GPS. Additionally, the U.S. Army has robust requirements for remote operations. Unlike civilian vehicles, which can safely pull over to the side of the road in case of system fault, military vehicles need to be always available for remote operations and might react differently to faults depending on the mission profile. Kodiak’s system is fully configurable in this regard, giving flexibility to the mission commander in the field.

Is it easier, in some ways, not having to account as much for other vehicles, pedestrians and traffic scenarios?
Creating a safe autonomous driving system is challenging, regardless if it’s on- or off-road. Both use cases come with their own challenges, and the autonomous system must be developed to operate effectively in the harsh environments in which it will be deployed. For example, defense use cases require operations in scenarios where the vehicle doesn’t have a clear path or paved road to follow. While there are fewer pedestrians, you need to account for different challenges, such as oncoming traffic on single-lane roads, tree trunks in grassy areas, or large crevices.

They may also need to operate in environments they have never encountered before, without pre-built maps. Also, dirt road and off-road driving is much harder on autonomous hardware, so the defense use case requires more robust hardware. Finally, defense-focused vehicles must still be able to operate safely around other vehicles and pedestrians – so in many ways these requirements are similar to what we see in trucking.

How are the DefensePods different from your SensorPods for commercial vehicles?
DefensePods are an adapted version of our modular, swappable SensorPods, designed for military use. Like SensorPods, DefensePods are pre-calibrated, pre-built hardware enclosures that include the sensors necessary for autonomous driving. A technician without specialized training can swap out a DefensePod in the field in 10 minutes or less.

The DefensePod sensor configuration is more compact than our on-road SensorPods, given the unique needs of the environment and the vehicles. Additionally, for our trucking product, the SensorPods contain mirrors for human drivers – in contrast, DefensePods are standalone without mirrors. The DefensePods also have a slightly different number of sensors than the newest versions of the SensorPods.

What did Kodiak learn from the F-150 military vehicle that can be applied to this new program with Textron?
The F-150 we developed for the DoD was a prototype, and it allowed us to modularize the autonomous vehicle software and hardware to be compatible with a variety of different vehicles. The F-150s allow us to test and develop autonomous vehicle technology in rugged environments that differ significantly from our commercial-trucking use case. The learnings from that project will certainly be carried through to this collaboration.

How promising is the military ground-vehicle market for autonomous systems?
The market opportunity for military applications is immense. Over the coming decades, the DoD plans to grow its ground vehicle inventory and, at scale, almost all new tactical vehicles will be equipped with autonomy.

Both the DoD and Congress see a tremendous potential for commercial developers to bring cutting-edge autonomous technology to the U.S. military. The 2024 National Defense Authorization Act included language that demonstrates congressional support for further integrating commercial technology developers into the DoD’s autonomous-technology acquisition strategies.

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