The convergence of robotics and advanced weaponry took another inevitable step forward with a successful live fire demonstration of several armed robots at Fort Benning Georgia that was covered by Computerworld last week. While armed robots have been tested before, these bots are notable for the accuracy of fire and their apparent readiness for combat. These aren’t science fiction or exotic prototypes, but realistic extension and modifications of existing robotic platforms.
The robots, including the HDT Protector shown above, fired at targets 150 meters out. However the effective range of the weapon is 1800 meters. Moreover, the robot can be remotely operated from over 3000 meters away giving a controlling infantry unit an effective radius of about 5000 meters. However, most humans are not very accurate shots at 1500m or more. Enter another interesting military technology related video that made the rounds this week, Austin’s TrackingPoint “smart gun”. The demonstration video shows how this technology allows the gun operator to have essentially “tap and kill” capability where the gun software calculates the correct targeting parameters and fires itself. The eventual evolution and convergence of the two ideas is a mobile remote robotics platform which will employ small arms more effectively than a human soldier which can be remotely controlled by a human operator far away from the battlefield.
A variety of armed robots with varying levels of autonomy are going to appear on the battlefield in the near term and they will become an integral part of the networked battlefield and battlespace. Although the armed robots demonstrated at Fort Benning all require remote operator control to fire, a networked command and control platform linked with armed robots fundamentally enables autonomous operation of combat systems based on only higher echelon signals.
Apart from light arms, military ground robots can also carry missiles, mortars, and other delivery systems depending on the size of the robotic platform and other factors. The robots will not only include small platforms to aid the infantry and employ small arms, but teleoperated armor and air power as well. Perhaps in the second half of this century, the first fully robotic war will be fought.
Initially ground based robots will be teleoperated over short distances, but longer distance control is possible as demonstrated in the Army’s Long Distance Teleoperation research. A combat robot certainly can be controlled from dozens of kilometers away or even from the other side of the globe using existing technologies. It further seems entirely possible that robots might be altered to enable fully or semi-autonomous battlefield operations at a later time. In the following very interesting video segment, a contractor discusses issues of autonomy, trust, and battlefield use of robots at the Fort Benning demonstrations.
Importantly crude military robots are not that hard or expensive to make. The smart gun sells for $27,500 and a military robot might cost upwards of $200,000. But this compares favorably to the price of a deployed U.S. soldier, more than $850,000 a year. Organizations such as the Libyan Rebels have built their own robots and we can expect many medium sized nation states to build or buy robotic systems in the coming decades. Military drones and robots are hot.
A sophisticated homebrewer could make a pretty deadly teleoperated mobile weapons platform for less than the price of a car. However, for the serious enthusiast the Kuratas robot, the ultimate in Japanese giant robot technology, is the only way to go.
A crude platform could of course be constructed for far less by using a hobby “combat robot” or by a variety of motivated homebrew robot builders and machinists. In fact some DIY weapon designers have already built armed robots for home defense and famously for shooting pigs over the Internet.
While teleoperation and telerobotics obviously have positive uses, the near term viability of low cost military robots is a potentially dangerous and destabilizing development. Various organizations from nations states to terrorist groups or just motivated individuals can build dangerous teleoperated devices. Moreover, it seems that attempts to limit the proliferation of combat robots of various types and models is going to be nearly impossible. Already modestly sophisticated groups can build robots; these systems do not entail particularly exotic technologies and therefore deadly robots are likely to be widely available. Actual combat performance might vary quite a bit of course; we wouldn’t expect a homebrew pig killing robot to defeat a real military system mano-a-mano.