It’s a guiding design principle for combat vehicles: to increase safety, increase the armor. But the advanced research arm of the United States Department of Defense, DARPA, wants to rethink how military vehicles are designed to protect the crews inside–by making them faster and smarter instead.
The program is called GXV-T, and project manager and U.S. Army Major Amber Walker calls it “a radically different approach by avoiding armor and developing options to move quickly and be agile over all terrain.” DARPA’s goal is to reduce combat vehicles’ size and weight by 50% and double their speed–while also making them capable of traveling across 95% of all imaginable road and off-road surfaces on Earth. The project involves several different technologies, including augmented reality and LIDAR, but perhaps most intriguingly, the GXV-T team is also developing entirely new types of wheels that will allow soldiers to escape dangerous situations faster.
For starters, the project’s design changes to the cockpit alone will be truly radical. The project team wants to eliminate windows completely since they are a vehicle’s weakest point. Instead, soldiers will use “Enhanced 360-degree Awareness with Virtual Windows,” made up of a series of video cameras and LIDAR, to capture the 2D and 3D landscape around the car. Drivers will don 3D near-to-eye goggles, combined with an optical head-tracker and wrap-around screens, to perceive their surroundings.
Another technology, developed by Carnegie Melon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center, is called Off-Road Crew Augmentation (ORCA). It predicts the safest and fastest route in real time, drawing a path over the terrain in augmented reality. The agency claims that “drivers using the ORCA aids and visual overlays traveled faster between waypoints and eliminated nearly all pauses to determine their route.” Still, these innovations seem like extensions of current technologies. ORCA sounds like a much more advanced version of the autopilot system developed at MIT for autonomous cars. And F-35 pilots have been able to enjoy transparent cockpits for a while, using helmets that allow them to see through the plane itself.
Where the project really breaks new ground, however, is in its wheel research.
In one case, DARPA is working with the British defense technology company QinetiQ to develop an in-wheel motor. Rather than depending on a central engine and transmission, the system puts an entire electrical motor in the wheel itself, increasing acceleration, maneuverability, and speed over all kinds of terrains while using a standard military 20-inch rim and wheel.
Another new wheel technology, called “Multi-mode Extreme Travel Suspension,” makes a vehicle more stable by adapting the hydraulic suspension based on the terrain. It dynamically adjusts the height of each wheel as it travels over uneven surfaces. The wheels can move independently, raising and lowering as much as six feet in total, to keep the vehicle upright and passengers stable.
Then there’s the Reconfigurable Wheel-Track, or RWT. The experimental wheel can adjust the way it functions in just two seconds. While driving over normal terrain, the RWT works at full speed like a regular wheel. But the moment the vehicle hits a softer or slippery material that can compromise mobility, speed, or stability, the wheel shape-shifts into a triangular track. Instead of rotating like a wheel, the track functions like a tank, moving linearly thanks to a mechanism inside the rim that keeps it operational in mud, snow, or gravel. It’s the best of both worlds.
At this early stage, it’s hard to imagine a civilian using these types of wheels, unless you live in a region where snow and ice would make such a high-traction, high-speed design useful. For now, the experimental wheel designs are just that–experiments.