‘Mission Possible’ for rock-climbing vehicle

Tom Shelley reports on full sized, off road unmanned autonomous vehicles

A full sized, unmanned ground vehicle based on a Land Rover has been developed for military and hazardous environment civilian use.

Building on a successful hybrid powered predecessor, the new platform is capable of speeds of more than 80 mph on level ground and has rock and stair climbing ability. What it will do and how it will function has yet to be decided, but its half tonne predecessor can carry a flying saucer shaped UAV, tow a 60 cubic metre surveillance blimp on a trailer, and can learn about its performance to help plan missions and communicate this information to other, similar machines.

It was only in Eureka’s June edition that we revealed the intense amount of development work in Germany on autonomous mobile robots, mainly for manufacturing applications. “MACE-1” and “MACE 2” on the other hand, which are entirely British, are primarily aimed at defence applications, although they do have civilian uses as well.

MACE 1 has a series diesel electric hybrid power train to improve efficiency and also to allow it to run quiet on battery only when required. An unusual feature is that it learns how much energy it needs to travel between two points. It then uses this information to calculate the amount of energy to perform required tasks and subsequently compares the actual energy used with its own projections. This information can then be communicated to other, similar vehicles, undertaking given tasks. If instructed to patrol a given area, navigating between way points, it can plan the most effective route in the light of its knowledge of the state of the ground, the energy required to complete the route and the effect of any required quiet running on battery charge. It has “Situational awareness” meaning that it uses cameras and other sensors to avoid obstacles. It is to take part in the final of the Ministry of Defence Grand Challenge, a competition for unmanned systems that can detect and report on military threats in an urban environment, later this month (August 2008) at Copehill Down.

We encountered MIRA design engineer James Halstead and his just finished MACE 2 machine at the recently held DVD 2008 at the Millbrook Proving Ground. The letters, incidentally stand for Mira Autonomous Control Engineering. He described the vehicle as being, “Heavily based on modified Land Rover axles with a Freelander engine and gearbox”.

Designed and stress analysed using Catia, Halstead said it had gone from conception to working prototype in only 11 weeks and added that it would be, “Running round our proving ground in full autonomous mode next month”.

The machine was displayed on a collection of rocks, and we were told that it used, “All in one shock absorber and spring units pressurised with nitrogen gas at 160 psi” (11 bar) plus Kam differential locks on the front and back axles. It has four wheel drive and four wheel steer, and a top speed of 83 mph. This means that in service, it could probably drive over rough ground faster than a vehicle with a human driver. The wheel forward configuration, meaning that the tyres of the front wheels extend beyond the chassis, means that it can climb rocks and stairs. Maximum suspension articulation is 44 ins (1.12m). Maximum range is 120 miles, which could be extended and turning circle is 7m kerb to kerb.

Weight is 1200kg, but it is designed to carry and if necessary power up to two tonnes of payload. Intended defence tasks include convoy escort, detection of roadside bombs, sentry duty and use as a mobile weapons platform.

Halstead told us that, “Other applications are sill emerging”. So far, these include dealing with nuclear accidents, search and rescue in hostile environments, such as in chemical plant, tunnel and aircraft fires, where one would be reluctant to risk human lives.

The machines are to become available for purchase in January 2009.


* The latest MACE 2 autonomous vehicle is Land Rover size

* Its predecessor, MACE 1 uses a hybrid power train to enable improved range, and if required, silent running

* MACE 1 measures its own energy performance and as well as using this information to plan missions, can also communicate this information to other, similar machines, to help them plan their missions

Tom Shelley

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