A look at the battlefield robots being developed to join the fray
In the summer of 2000, the TV show BattleBots debuted on Comedy Central and featured robot combatants battling to the mechanical death in gladiator-style matches. While many enjoyed the show at the start of the new millennium, few would have seen it as a harbinger of military combat two decades later.
Yet, constant developments in the fields of AI and robotics have led the United States military, and its adversaries, to invest heavily in the development of robots for the battlefield that are increasingly lighter and more effective. These robots are used to assist soldiers on the field — detecting IEDs, mapping territory, disrupting enemy communication, etc. — and have proven extremely valuable in such efforts. Increased military interest in developing battlefield robots has led to both incredible accomplishments and ethical dilemmas.
The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has a program known as Squad X Core Technologies (SXCT) with the stated purpose of developing “novel technologies that could be integrated into user-friendly systems that would extend squad awareness and engagement capabilities without imposing physical and cognitive burdens.” In order to achieve this goal, SXCT has teamed with robotics and AI companies to develop battle-ready robots.
Early last year, Raytheon BBN Technologies and Northrop Grumman teamed with the Defense Department to provide teams that developed open platforms for swarm technology. The autonomous micro-drones can be focused on virtual or physical environments, swarm tactics, human-swarm teaming, or swarm autonomy. Competitions are being scheduled for various teams and include using a swarm of air and ground battlefield robots for reconnaissance, the identification of entry and exit points, and establishing a perimeter around a two square block area.
Competing for Big Contracts
Every branch of the military is exploring the development of fleets of robots to assist its troops, led by the Army, which has its sights set on 5,000 robots of various sizes and degrees of autonomy. Contracts are being awarded to robotics companies that can provide the best robotic soldiers. The biggest such contract is for more than $429 million to be awarded to any company that can provide a mass-produced bot that weighs no more than 25 pounds and can be carried long distances by a soldier. Two finalists have emerged, Endeavor Robotics and QinetiQ.
QinetiQ has developed battlefield robots of all sizes. Its TITAN is an unmanned ground vehicle, the MAARS is a “weaponized robot,” and the TALON is a mid-sized tactical robot. However, it’s the Dragon Runner robots that can be carried by hand or in a rucksack that could help QinetiQ score some or all of the big contract.
Another company with defense contracting experience, Endeavor Robotics, an offshoot of iRobot which created the Roomba autonomous vacuum cleaner, has supplied battlefield robots to the military since 2002, when its Packbot was used to disable IEDs in Afghanistan. The company’s latest development is the Scorpion, a smaller, more user-friendly version of the Packbot that can be easily controlled using a touchscreen device.
In 2017, Endeavor scored a $158.5 million contract to provide the Army with 1,200 MTRS (Man-Transportable Robotic System) robots. The mid-sized robots will be used to detect explosives, chemicals, biological weapons, and radioactive or nuclear material and are slated to be deployed by the Army this summer.
Cobots on the Battlefield
Soldiers working together with robots are able to accomplish more and remain safer than they would be without their electronic compatriots. Lockheed Martin has developed an ASSAULTS (Augmented Spectral Situational Awareness, and Unaided Localization for Transformative Squads) system for the Marines which uses autonomous battlefield robots equipped with sensors to discover the location of enemies. Once detected, Marines can hit the enemies with a precision 40-mm grenade while remaining undetected.
Meanwhile, CACI’s BEAM (BITS Electronic Attack Module) system helps keep those on the battlefield safe from drones. BEAM detects electronic and cyber threats by locking onto the frequency of a drone, geolocating it, and jamming it. What makes BEAM unique is it is easy to pack and attacks a single frequency whereas other electronic warfare jamming devices send a signal that jams devices across a wider range of frequencies.
The Ocean of Things?
Of course, military conflict does not only occur on land and in the air, so DARPA is studying ways to set up sensors in the ocean. PALS (Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors) is a program that studies the reactions of oceanic organisms to their environment in an effort to be able to monitor reactions, interpret data, and ultimately detect smaller vehicles.
Currently, sensors are able to detect large ships but the people behind PALS hope that the natural reactions of living organisms will allow for the detection of smaller vessels and even underwater drones. PALS promises not to attempt to attach sensors to endangered marine life and will focus on crustaceans, mollusks, and some fish. The ability of such creatures to detect changes in chemicals, sounds, electricity, and more could provide a more accurate and more discreet way of monitoring strategic parts of the ocean.
In addition to the ethics of attaching sensors to living things in the case of PALS, battlefield robots have raised ethical questions and concerns from a wide range of people, including the US Department of Defense. So far, the US military has shied away from fully autonomous robot weaponry. In fact, in 2012 the US issued a five-year ban on autonomous weaponry, a ban that was upheld in 2017. The belief is that a robot should not be able to make the decision of whether a human lives or dies, rather that decision should be left to a person giving an order — even if he or she is safely hundreds or thousands of miles away.
In the summer of 2017, 116 founders of AI and robotics companies signed an open letter to the United Nations asking for a ban on autonomous weapons and deadly robots. The brief letter closes: “Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close. We therefore implore the High Contracting Parties to find a way to protect us all from these dangers.”
However, for the time being, the benefits battlefield robots offer to soldiers appear to outweigh the concerns of a dystopian future ripped straight out of a sci-fi movie. As such, AI and robotics developers continue to compete against one another to create the latest robots that will keep soldiers safer and contribute to the successful completion of missions.