DARPA's latest toy is a 20-foot, 12-ton tank that drives itself

Crew entirely optional

DARPA has been working on off-road autonomous vehicles for decades, and now it has a combat-scale unmanned tank to show.

The Robotic Autonomy in Complex Environments with Resiliency (RACER) program has entered a new phase of research that includes testing the RACER Heavy Platform (RHP), a 20-foot long, 12-ton (6 meter, 10.8 metric ton) tracked "optionally manned combat/fighting vehicle." The autonomous tank, shown below, is supplementing the RACER Fleet Vehicle (RFV), which is essentially a self-driving ATV.

"Having two radically different types of vehicles helps us advance towards RACER's goal of platform agnostic autonomy in complex, mission-relevant off-road environments that are significantly more unpredictable than on-road conditions," said RACER program manager Stuart Young.

Youtube Video

"Adding the combat-scale RHP robot supports porting and performance demonstration of RACER autonomy stacks at multiple scales concurrently while moving between highly varied terrains," Young added. 

RHP's previously unreported initial field testing was conducted late last year at a 15 square mile chunk of off-road terrain in Texas. The RFV, which has been in development for longer, completed more than 30 runs of 3-10 miles (4.8 km - 16 km) in length without being given any opportunity to pre-train on the test site.

RHP, based on the Textron Ripsaw M5 previously trialed by the US Army, is a newer experiment and so was only tested in an autonomous route-following mode. Nonetheless, DARPA said it was able to travel more than 30 miles (48 km) "over similarly complex terrain to test low-level autonomous control, collect sensor data sets, assess mobility, and refine operations."

"Incorporation of RHP as a fleet platform is setting the tone for the program to achieve tougher autonomous maneuver goals while showing autonomy resiliency and adaptability to new environments on any robot at any scale," Young said of the test mission's success.

The RACER program has been chugging along for around 20 years, starting with a 2004 Grand Challenge event to solicit concepts for autonomous vehicle technology for DARPA.

Back then the goal was to get an autonomous vehicle to make it through a test course just 1.36 miles (2.2 km) long. Fifteen teams were on deck for the first run of the contest. Only a single team completed the course – Carnegie Mellon University's $3 million modified Hummer known as "Sandstorm" – and Carnegie is still in the race today.

The RHP might be based on Textron's M5 vehicle, but the hardware stacks and software running on them were developed by Carnegie Robotics, a private spin-off of Carnegie Mellon's earlier robotics efforts formed after the university also won DARPA's subsequent urban autonomy challenge. 

The RACER program is planning one more field test this year in approximately six months in order to keep its biannual cadence on track. Smaller scale tests will continue between the larger events.

We asked DARPA about eventual use cases for the RHP, but were told such is outside the scope of its program, and the current model is only being used to test DARPA off-road autonomy algorithms.

Nonetheless, we can already catch a glimpse of potential purposes for the RHP or a predecessor in the existing Ripsaw. The M5 as it exists today can be outfitted with sensing technology, used as a mine and IED disarming device and armed with a cannon or Javelin missile launcher, all while unmanned. Just add RACER algorithms for an added boost of autonomy. ®

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like