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The autonomous Army leader-follower convoy on the Goulburn Valley Highway in Victoria.
Guy HandJun 16, 2023 9:20:29 AM2 min read

Autonomous Army convoy hits the highway

The NTRO’s work with the Australian Army on its autonomous leader-follower project has reached a new and historic stage as the project became the first to operate a convoy autonomously on an open Australian highway.

The Army, along with the NTRO and Deakin University as partners, has been trialling autonomous leader-follower technology for the past 12 months.

It has previously been trialled on armed forces bases, and on public roads – including a test drive around the Mt Panorama motor racing circuit at Bathurst in October 2022.

Now the autonomous leader-follower project has been successfully tested on an open Australian highway. In June 2023, the convoy operated autonomously from Victoria’s Mangalore Airport, two hours’ north of Melbourne, to the Puckapunyal army base along the Goulburn Valley and Hume Highways under an Automated Driving System permit from Victoria’s Department of Transport and Planning.

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“This trial showed how a convoy could undertake a resupply mission between an airfield and a military base, giving us an idea of how this kind of technology could be used in the future,” Colonel Robin Smith from Army’s Future Land Warfare team said.

“Driving on a highway in traffic meant the technology was tested to stop safely, and leave distances between other vehicles, while following the path set by the leader. Down the track technology like this could remove our soldiers from dangerous environments or help free soldiers up for other roles.”

The NTRO’s role, together with Deakin University’s Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI), has been to safely and successfully deploy the locally developed technology on public roads.

This involves testing and development to ensure that the technology can safely inter-operate alongside other road users on roads and highways in Australia, with the Victorian highway trial an important step towards this goal. 

NTRO project lead and discipline lead for mobility futures, Dr Charles Karl, says the Army leader-follower project has been a rewarding one, and a career highlight.

“Over the last eight years, NTRO’s efforts in deploying automated vehicles has largely focussed on Australian public roads. But more recently we have worked to enable land vehicles that typically operate in other domains such as mines, ports, airports, agriculture and defence to operate on parts of our road network, without having to close the road,” Dr Karl said.

“We developed additional testing programs and specific safety management plans for each of these automated systems to secure approvals for safe on-road operations.

“The learnings from this trial not only benefits Army, but will also enable similar automated operations of freight vehicles on Australian roads in the future.

“It was an absolute highlight of my career to be working with such a dedicated team from both Army and IISRI, to experience the strong support from all levels of governments, to see the reactions and feedback from the general community when we had those deployments and to sense the strategic value of the efforts for Australia.”

As Australia and New Zealand’s National Transport Research Organisation, NTRO is able to work with a variety of partners on projects involving Defence, and future mobility including autonomous solutions. Find out more here .

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