LÄSNA, Estonia — An hour from Estonia’s capital Tallinn, on a hot day in late June, a robot-like vehicle glides over dense vegetation, clearing sandy and bumpy terrain with a mechanical hum. It negotiates through the trees of a small forest, revealing a team of operators in tow who warn their fellow human observers to keep their distance.

The platform is the THeMIS 4.5, and it belongs to Milrem Robotics, a 10-year-old company founded in Estonia and bought by the United Arab Emirates’ Edge Group this year that now competes with big players in the unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) market. Standing at a population of just 1.3 million inhabitants, the Baltic nation has become a hub of innovation for UGV technology over the last few years.

Today, Estonia is one of the many nations looking to gradually make ground robots an important part of their military structure and doctrine as a complement to — or outright replacement of — existing capabilities. In this context, the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) invited vendors here for a two-day trial on June 28 and 29 to show off their vehicles’ abilities.

The objective was for them to finish three daily scenarios, which ranged from easy to challenging, in a time slot of 20 minutes, with minimal operator intervention or in autonomous mode. The demonstration took place in front of observers composed of military officials from over 20 countries, mostly from Europe.

Old hands and startups

The development of UGVs has been a slow process and will likely take more time to refine, as militaries continue to assess their requirements and how they plan to field them in conjunction with legacy systems. Still, interest in the technology remains high.

“It is definitely a field that is taking off,” Markus Otsus, project coordinator at the Estonian Military Academy, one of the event’s organizers, told Defense News. “We expected to have five or six platforms present at the trial, but ended up having 11 and interest from more who could not make it.”

Of those present there, more than half are still in a prototype stage, highlighting how the terrestrial domain has lagged behind the faster-moving field of aerial drones.

As a result, the mixed field of contestants included established players such as Rheinmetall and Milrem, whose respective platforms Mission Master and TheMIS, have already been sold to over a dozen countries. On the other end of spectrum was German startup ARX Landsystems whose Gereon RCS vehicle was finished only ten days before the event.

“Many countries have acquired UGVs as testing units, which often means they are treated as something they have to cherish because they can’t just go around throwing money away when not many units have been produced or are available,” Otsus said.

For them to be deployed in operational scenarios or “in a situation like we’re seeing in Ukraine, they need a lot more robustness in terms of being able to take a beating, not many systems have actually been out in the wild for months on end,” he added.

Stubborn challenges

The biggest challenges faced by UGVs had to do with perception and localization. Most vehicles are currently equipped with light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors, which provide long-distance vision during the day and night to identify and avoid objects. This is achieved by generating millions of data-points using laser beams, creating a live-3D map of its surroundings.

Drawbacks of the technology include spotty performance in rain, snow, or fog, while laser-spoofing techniques can disrupt its perceptive abilities. It can also be fooled by dust and dense flora, as seen multiple times over the trial.

Company representatives told Defense News about one scenario in particular, which entailed trees and vegetation of plants more than one meter high, that caused problems in their vehicles’ LIDAR sensing. The robots would halt in their tracks, appearing confused by turning left and right, unable to map their surroundings and compute a path forward. In the end, many UGVs had to be tele-operated – remotely driven by an operator – through such rough patches.

“Another risk of LIDAR in military applications is that as an active laser sensor, it emits pulsed light waves into the environment that can easily be spotted with goggles by opponents,” a Nexter representative here said. The French company had brought its Ultro-600 vehicle to the trials.

Enemy detection is a problem all makers face.

“Yes we do worry about it — which is why for the last year we have been trialing a few different passive sensing solutions that we hope to integrate into the next product release cycle,” Luc Brunet, vice president of Rheinmetall Provectus, said.

The reliability of UGVs’ communication systems is key in any scenario, according to Otsus.

“If you’re in the middle of an operation and urgently need situational awareness but the UGV loses connection or sends an error signal back, then the use-cases in which they can be operated are limited,” he said.

Although in open-road scenarios, most systems performed relatively well and completed them without relying excessively on manual options, the situation grew more complex in forested areas.

For example, Rheinmetall and a Czech University of Defence team reported on both days that the GPS signal was weaker in wooded settings, even though participants were allowed pre-load ten waypoints in their vehicles’ navigation software ahead of time.

“The trees, especially on the second day, were acting as a sort of wall for the platforms’ sensors, making it more difficult for them to find the best route,” Etienne Rancourt, business development manager at Rheinmetall Canada explained.

Upping the autonomy

Although robotic combat is far from achieving full autonomy, gradual progress is still being made. Several armies are upping their combat training with UGVs, including German forces, which practiced with the tracked Ziesel and TheMIS vehicles in February.

British forces tested heavy UGVs — weighing over five tons — in April for the first time, including Milrem’s Type X and Rheinmetall’s Wiesel. In May, the United States, Britain and Australia carried out an artificial intelligence and autonomy exercise involving drones, tanks and the Viking UGV, produced by Iveco-owned subsidiary Horiba Mira. Many countries are also looking to develop their own systems, including the Czech Republic and Spain, which respectively showcased the Taros and SR-0001 medium-sized platforms in Estonia.

According to Ivo Peets, chief of the Estonian Defense Forces’ long-term planning staff, UGVs are best employed in well-defined roles with clear objectives, something that many countries are still defining.

“UGVs have thus far made important advancements primarily in non-kinetic tasks such as mine-clearing, explosive ordnance disposal and evacuation,” he told Defense News.

The current appetite appears to be in operating these platforms in logistics and surveillance roles, according to one Polish official here who said he was seeking smaller-sized UGVs for reconnaissance missions.

That is not to say that countries are giving up on armed versions. Rheinmetall Canada, which spearheads the German company’s ground robot business segment, confirmed to Defense News that the company had been approached by several European countries interested in weaponized platforms.

According to Peets, for that trend to become reality is only a matter of time, though more safety testing and procedure standardization will be required.

The roadmap to UGVs becoming fully integrated into national fighting forces remains blurry. Most country representatives here were going by an assumption of 2040 as the year when the technology will be ready for prime time. For now, that objective entails troops gaining more experience operating and maintaining these systems while also learning how to make them cost effective.

For smaller nations like Estonia, Peets points out that UGVs are not viable in large quantities for the kinds of robot battles that have captured the imagination or armchair generals. However, for countries with specialized infantry units, larger armed forces and longer borders, hundreds would be needed to make a difference, according to German and Finnish officials.

The growth of the UGV industry has been a slow burn, but it finally looks like it is heating up.

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.

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