By NSWC Dahlgren Division Corporate Communications
When the Army, Navy and Marine Corps need technological expertise related to autonomous weaponized manned and unmanned systems on their platforms, they routinely collaborate with a cadre of experts at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD).
The joint services – aware of the Intelligent Tracker team’s expertise and capabilities – have been contacting the NSWCDD Unmanned and Autonomous Systems Branch for the past decade with requests to make a highly automated detection and tracking capability a reality in their fire control systems.
In response, the NSWCDD team worked with sponsors to develop the Automated Remote Engagement System (ARES), which is fundamental to detecting, tracking and automating the kill chain for manned and unmanned weapon systems in platforms from Navy warships to Army and Marine Corps light armored vehicles.
“Our goal is to enhance the level of automation for direct fire weapon systems while increasing the speed of operator engagements against targets,” said Ben Goldman, NSWCDD engineer who is the project lead at the branch. The automation applies to a wide range of applications from “a remote weapon station shooting a .50-cal on the unmanned boat tested on the Potomac River Test Range or the 30mm main gun on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle or a Stryker Combat Vehicle.”
The ARES team installed an automated weapon system on an unmanned boat, known as the common unmanned surface vehicle, and demonstrated it for distinguished visitors on Dahlgren’s Potomac River Test Range in 2018. The event demonstrated prototype automation of significant portions of the kill chain that is tactically effective with minimal dependence on a datalink while operating beyond the warfighter’s line of sight.
In February 2020 – prior to COVID-19 pandemic travel and work restrictions – Goldman and his team of three engineers began to collaborate with Army engineers at the Weapons and Software Engineering Center at DEVCOM Armaments Center in New Jersey. Their collaboration focused on a novel effort to bring the ARES detection and tracking capability to the Next Generation Intelligent Fire Control (NGIFC) project.
“We have not been there since,” said Goldman. “Our team has been able to utilize the tools and the workflow that we worked really hard to put in place prior to the pandemic. We were able to execute the product this fiscal year with basically no schedule slip due to COVID.”
The new Dahlgren-developed product, called the Intelligent Tracker, will increase the Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicle’s NGIFC capability to control its medium and large caliber weapon systems.
The Intelligent Tracker innovation – made possible with state-of-the-art algorithms developed over 10 years of cumulative research at NSWCDD – adds a rapid and precise automated target detection and tracking capability to the kill chain for manned and unmanned weapon systems.
What’s more, the Intelligent Tracker features a deep-learning based neural network prepared for image-based object detection on thermal and visible image inputs. This detector was programmed using open source datasets and datasets curated by the Dahlgren team.
“We’re processing the video from the gun turret cameras,” said Goldman. “We’re running a series of image processing algorithms upon those videos on embedded hardware so we’re able to do it in real time and apply state of the art processing algorithms on that video while providing operator aides and increased automation to shorten the kill chain cycle.”
The team is currently optimizing the performance for application on an Nvidia Jetson chip, taking advantage of Nvidia tools, to prune the neural network and reducing the computational precision to allow for faster calculation. The initial performance measures bode well for the use of these algorithms in detection, aided target recognition and tracking at the frame rate of the incoming video for use as an operator aide in direct fire gunnery.
The team’s future work on the Next Generation Intelligent Fire Control Project will focus on improving the performance of the algorithms and datasets while continuing to benchmark their effectiveness.
“We have really good collaboration tools in place for our research, development, test and evaluation moving forward,” said Goldman. “Our tools include a DevSecOps (Development Security Operations) pipeline in place to build, share and collaborate on our code.”
Although the Intelligent Tracker’s Navy civilian engineers are NSWCDD employees, “We work very closely with DEVCOM Armaments Center in New Jersey,” said Goldman. “Our previous work for the Navy and Marine Corps was sponsored by ONR (Office of Naval Research) and various places in OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense). It is definitely a joint effort that led to the knowledge base we needed to execute the Intelligent Tracker project. To bring this technology to the warfighter in an ethical and responsible manner is what we’re after, and to give our troops the edge in any future conflicts is also what we’re after.”
Meanwhile, the Navy is interested in the technological edge that the project’s capabilities can bring to bear on its weapon systems.
“We were funded this year to do a study on what it would take to bundle up what we’ve done for the Army and transfer it into the fire control for the next generation MK 38 system, adding that capability to the Navy side,” said Goldman.
The Navy – specifically, the Surface Ship Weapons Directorate at the Naval Sea System Command’s Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems –– is in the process of upgrading the MK 38 to a 30mm gun system. The MK 38 is a medium caliber machine gun system installed for ship self-defense to counter small threats in multiple domains. “The work we do is tremendously stimulating on an academic and technical level,” said Goldman, who credits the scientists and engineers at the NSWCDD Unmanned and Autonomous Systems Branch for their research, development, test and evaluation that made the intelligent automation technology possible.
They are among hundreds of NSWCDD technical experts who are leading the development of unmanned and autonomous systems while providing solutions to meet warfighter needs. The solutions often require rapid integration of unmanned and autonomous systems and technologies in Army, Navy and Marine Corps systems, mobile systems, weapons systems, engagement systems and combat systems.
“We’re using the best of the best hardware, software and tools while working with people directly and indirectly throughout the world who are brilliant – people who have pushed the technology forward in the past 10 years,” said Goldman. “This is not just a theoretical exercise – we’re working toward live fire demonstrations and proof of concept prototype capabilities, so we get to see the tangible results of what we do. The work is incredibly interesting, especially knowing that we’re riding the wave of state-of-the-art technology and bringing it to bear on military problems.”