The unattended steering wheel on the 15-ton military truck jerked sharply back and forth as the vehicle's huge tires bounced down a rain-scarred ravine through mounds of mine rubble on a rugged hillside near Pittsburgh.
Oshkosh Corp engineer Noah Zych, perched in the driver's seat, kept his hands in his lap and away from the gyrating wheel as the vehicle reached the bottom of the slope and slammed into a puddle, coating the windshield in a blinding sheet of mud.
As the truck growled up another rise and started back down again, Zych reached up and flicked a wiper switch to brush away the slurry, then put his hands back in his lap.
"We haven't automated those yet," he explained, referring to the windshield wipers, as the robotic truck reached the bottom of the hill and executed a perfect hairpin turn.
Ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have put a spotlight on the growing use of unmanned systems in the skies over the battlefield, from the high-flying Global Hawk to the lethal Predator aircraft and the hand-launched Raven.
But on the ground, thousands of small, remotely operated robots also have proven their value in dealing with roadside bombs, a lethal threat to U.S. troops in both wars. Of more than 6,000 robots deployed, about 750 have been destroyed in action, saving at least that many human lives, the Pentagon's Robotics Systems Joint Program Office estimates.
Only now is robotics research nearing the stage that the military may soon be able to deploy large ground vehicles capable of performing tasks on their own with little human involvement. The results, among other things, could be more saved lives, less wear and tear on the troops, and reduced fuel consumption.
Full autonomy, engineers say, is still years away...