The Nightcrawler series of unmanned ground vehicles were specifically designed for the Subterranean Warfare Group of USSOCOM to safely locate adversaries in caves and tunnels. The vehicles utilize a unique Thermal/Optical camera fusion system, which combines thermal and optical images, highlighting only relevant thermal signatures, such as those of human beings, on top of the optical view. This allows for clear identification of the environment and potential threats without putting operators in danger.
The Nightcrawler V3 was designed to be “Comms Agnostic” to offer flexibility for operators. This means that it can be used with any IP-based radio system, eliminating the need for operators to purchase additional equipment beyond what they already have. During field testing, the MPU5 radio system was utilized and provided outstanding results. The requirement set by USSOCOM for the unit was to be able to travel at least three non-line-of-sight curves in a communications-denied environment before requiring a radio hop. The Nightcrawler V3 exceeded this expectation by traversing the entire testing complex using only two radios.
“Nightcrawler clearly gives us an operational advantage in SUB-T”
Nightcrawler is operated through a custom plugin for the military application ATAK. This plugin allows users to view and control the vehicle using a standard Xbox controller, which is a familiar and widely used piece of hardware. This approach made training on how to operate Nightcrawler quick and easy, taking only a few minutes.
After weeks of field testing with actual operators, we obtained valuable feedback on how to improve the unit to make it combat-ready. Through this process, we also identified inefficiencies in their current tactics, techniques, and procedures (CONOPs). One significant example was their method for mapping subterranean environments, which involved a series of radio calls and hand-drawn maps. We observed that these maps, although similar in shape, were inconsistent from one another. By integrating a simple off-the-shelf LiDAR system into Nightcrawler, we were able to create accurate, 1:1 maps of the environment.
I constructed Nightcrawler V3 in my garage workshop during the Covid-19 isolation period. The process involved creating 2D CAD files, laser cutting them out of chipboard at a 1:1 scale to build a replica model, and then cutting the final parts out of 4mm ABS sheets and assembling them with bolts. For the camera head and battery compartments, I used SLA 3D printing with a strong and durable engineering resin. The unit was built using an OTS RC chassis for ease of field servicing and availability of replaceable parts worldwide.
Nightcrawler V3 features the following:
1/8th scale RC platform
Front and Rear Depth Cameras
Thermal / Optical Camera Fusion
Two Way Audio
Independent 4-way steering
6 hour runtime
Nightcrawler V3 continues to be tested and has garnered international attention for further use. Development on this unit has been halted though in favor of Nightcrawler V4, a larger production ready unit with multiple use cases. .