What can the A&D industry teach us about building autonomous vehicles?

autonomous driving scene

The race is on to develop fully autonomous cars, with all of the traditional automotive manufacturers competing against upstarts like Tesla, Uber, and Google’s Waymo to capture a piece of the self-driving vehicle market that is expected to reach $557 billion by 2026, according to Allied Market Research.

Building an autonomous car is an exceedingly complex and challenging task. There are the fundamental technological problems associated with aggregating, analyzing and acting upon data from radar, LIDAR, sonar and other sensor systems in real time in order to safely navigate a two-ton vehicle through an unpredictable and crowded environment. On top of that are the moral, ethical and legal issues around worst-case crash scenarios.

But there’s no reason that automakers should have to go it alone. Aerospace and defense companies have been grappling with similar issues for many years as they strive to develop the autonomous ships, unmanned jet fighters, high-flying drones and self-driving military vehicles of the future.

There’s quite a lot that the auto industry can learn from aerospace and defense when it comes to building autonomous vehicles. And the reverse is true, as well. In fact, it makes sense for the best minds in all of these industries to come together and share information in order to accelerate the pace of innovation for everyone.

A&D typically leads the way

Emerging technologies more often than not originate from R&D based on military requirements; examples include radar, the internet, satellites, GPS, microwaves and augmented and virtual reality.

The aerospace and defense industries have a wealth of experience and knowledge in key areas like navigation, surveillance, situational awareness and motion control. Specific technologies that apply to building autonomous vehicles include:

  • Artificial general intelligence.
  • Advanced analytics.
  • Advanced electro-optics,
  • High-performance computing.
  • Advanced navigation and motion planning.
  • Low-latency, highly reliable network communication.

We are starting to see autonomous technology developed by aerospace and defense companies moving out of the lab and finding its way into real-world deployments in land, sea and air.

In February, Boeing unveiled an unmanned combat aircraft designed to fly alongside a manned fighter jet as a low-cost force multiplier. The idea is to have between 4 and 6 of the planes flying in formation. The autonomous technologies that would enable this type of high-speed, coordinated movement is exactly what automakers are working on as they develop the vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems that would enable multiple self-driving cars to, for example, all slow down at once on the freeway in response to an accident or other unexpected road condition up ahead.

The U.S. Navy is testing an autonomous warship named the Sea Hunter that can cruise for 70 days and cover as much as 10,000 nautical miles without having to re-fuel. The unarmed vessel is designed to use advanced sonar to hunt for enemy submarines. Despite the fact that roadways are significantly more crowded than the open seas, collision avoidance is a major issue for ships, since there’s no such thing as a minor fender bender when we’re talking about large vessels moving at high rates of speed in the water. For that reason, the Navy is working hard on autonomous collision avoidance technology, which can be adapted for self-driving cars.

The U.S. Army is beating commercial developers of self-driving vehicles to the punch. The Army announced in April that it is deploying autonomous trucks at Fort Bliss in Texas, with plans to expand the pilot program to other military bases. “We’re going to have self-driving vehicles in theater for the Army before we’ll have self-driving cars on the streets,” said Michael Griffin, the Army’s undersecretary for research and engineering. “But the core technologies will be the same,” he added.

And in March, the U.S. Air Force announced the successful inaugural flight of the XQ-58A Valkyrie drone. Multiple Valkyries can be teamed up with a manned F-35 jet fighter to create a fleet that can perform a range of missions, including suppression of enemy air defenses, offensive and defensive counter-air maneuvers, stealth flight and high-altitude flying. The Air Force wants to add AI capabilities to the drone so that it can train and learn alongside human pilots, eventually growing in skill and becoming able to respond independently to threats. This is exactly how self-driving cars will evolve as they move from having human safety drivers behind the wheel just in case, to full autonomy.

There also are defense research programs on “swarm drones” which will take autonomy to the next level by adding collaboration capabilities, similar to the leap from Robots to Cobots. This capability will be essential for land vehicles to collaborate with each other to reduce the impact of traffic congestion and accidents.

In addition, Sikorsky, Boeing, Uber and many others are working on autonomous helicopters and small, self-driving passenger airplanes that could one day be deployed as flying taxis in congested cities. These vehicles need to solve all of the same technological problems as self-driving cars or taxis in terms of navigation, collision avoidance, etc. And they also need to work out the human-machine interactions. Are they voice activated? Is there a touch-screen? How do the passenger and machine communicate? These issues still need to be figured out.

Going forward, automotive manufacturers can learn from what the A&D industry is doing with drones, ships, planes and trucks and use these innovations to create reliable, safe and secure autonomous vehicles. Companies that can collaborate across industry lines will be the ones that create disruptive business models and gain competitive advantage.

Dhananjay Shukla is Principal Solution architect in Global Robotic Drive Analytics offering team at DXC Technology. Prior to joining DXC, Dhananjay worked as Senior Director at Verizon, where he was responsible for leading the IoT and Connected Car R&D and business development in APEC region. In his leisure time he enjoys traveling, listening to music and watching movies.

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