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Littleton

Future of self-driving vehicles unfolds in Littleton

At new Lockheed Martin facility, autonomous military and commercial vehicles are developed

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Tucked away in an industrial area of Littleton, engineers and programmers are helping build self-driving systems for vehicles ranging from giant mining dump trucks to unmanned aircraft.

Lockheed Martin recently opened its new Autonomous Systems facility on Southpark Way and hosted a grand-opening ceremony on Jan. 25.

At a demonstration for guests at the ceremony, a small six-wheeled vehicle, painted desert tan, followed engineer Keith Massie around the parking lot.

The Squad Mission Support System, as it's called, has already been fielded in Afghanistan, said Bill Severson, part of the team that developed it. It helps infantry troops lighten their heavy load without requiring much attention from them.

“Soldiers on the ground have a lot of stuff to carry and a lot of ground to cover,” he said.

Massie got the vehicle moving with an Xbox controller — troops in the field seem to prefer that to more expensive controllers, Severson said. After it followed Massie in a loop of the parking lot, it retraced its steps on its own.

Scott Greene, vice president of program management at Lockheed's Missiles and Fire Control division, said the systems help take the individual out of mundane tasks, allowing them to focus on more complex jobs.

Lockheed's research into automation dates back to the 1970s.

“This technology is something we've been involved with for many years,” said Rick Edwards, executive vice president of Missiles and Fire Control.

Lockheed Martin is an aerospace and defense firm headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland. Its Space Systems division is located at 12257 S. Wadsworth Blvd. in south Jefferson County.

The company's Autonomous Systems division grew out of PercepTek, a small Littleton-based firm Lockheed bought in 2007. Software systems are developed at the Littleton location, while hardware is developed at a Lockheed facility in Texas.

Software developed by Autonomous Systems has been put into practice not only in the battlefields of Afghanistan, but in railyards in the U.S., shuttling workers across the jobsite in a modified ATV, and mines in Australia, where massive trucks drive themselves in an ever-changing environment.

Erik Mitisek, chief innovation officer for the state, praised the advancements being made at the facility.

“Innovation is the brand of Colorado,” he said.

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