DARPA unleashes 20-foot autonomous robo-tank with glowing green eyes


TL;DR: The Pentagon’s mad scientists have been cooking up a beast of an unmanned combat vehicle, and it just took a major step forward. DARPA recently put its 12-ton RACER Heavy Platform (RHP) autonomous tank through a fresh round of testing out in the wild.

For those not in the know, DARPA has been working on self-driving military vehicles for two decades now as part of its RACER (Robotic Autonomy in Complex Environments with Resiliency) program. The goal is to develop autonomous ground vehicles that can navigate off-road terrain without any human input.

This newest phase involved letting the RHP loose on some legit US military training grounds in Texas. The video showed off rugged, obstacle-filled environments packed with vegetation, waterways, ditches, and rocky outcrops. Exactly the kind of hellish conditions that could give a self-driving system a full-on meltdown.

But DARPA’s 20-foot-long unmanned behemoth seemed to handle it all without breaking a sweat. The agency reports the RHP knocked out 30 miles of autonomous route-following and cruised along at speeds of up to 25 mph.

To clarify, the RHP testing, assisted by University of Washington and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, occurred late 2023 but has just been announced by DARPA.

One peculiar feature that stood out in the video was the vehicle’s glowing green eyes. They do add a touch of futurism that DARPA was likely trying to go for but also appear a tad quirky at times. Apparently, they serve a purpose – a spokesperson for the agency told Gizmodo that “it’s just an indicator light to show the status of the vehicle. Green = it’s on and in autonomy mode.”

Anyway, DARPA says that the 12-ton RACER is designed to support other members of the RACER Fleet Vehicles (RFVs). But those other vehicles are more like self-driving ATVs. Meanwhile, this tank-scaled RHP takes autonomous capabilities to a whole new level of heavy-duty.

DARPA intends to keep iterating on RACER every 6 months or so, continually ramping up the autonomous tech. The RHP is based on an existing Textron combat vehicle platform used by the Army.

Ultimately, the agency seems to be aiming for unmanned combat vehicles that can roll into battle without risking human lives. These could handle dangerous roles like scouting, resupplying, or even paving the way with firepower before troops move in. An AI-driven tank definitely sounds terrifying. But it might just offer a safer alternative to boots on the ground.

Of course, we’re still years away from anything like that becoming an actual deployable system. DARPA has been at this RACER rodeo since 2004 when it started with just getting a self-driving car to navigate a simple 1-mile course. Now, two decades later, it has an autonomous tank tearing across training grounds.

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