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Killer robots: should we be afraid?

Military ground robots: a technological shift?

Richard Robert, Journalist and Author
On November 9th, 2021 |
3 mins reading time
4
Military ground robots: a technological shift?
David Filliat
David Filliat
Professor at ENSTA Paris (IP Paris)
Key takeaways
  • Ground robots pose specific technical challenges, especially in the field of mobility.
  • Full autonomy on the battlefield is out of reach for the moment.
  • But progress is rapid, particularly because these are dual technologies, which are not developed specifically for the military.

What are the chal­lenges of mil­i­tary land robot­ics today?

David Fil­li­at. Whether mil­i­tary or civil­ian, robot­ics cov­ers dif­fer­ent tech­ni­cal domains. There are sen­so­ry tech­nolo­gies or mobil­i­ty tech­nolo­gies, from a mechan­i­cal or arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence point of view, etc. Impres­sive progress has been made in recent years: Boston Dynam­ics’ robots, for exam­ple, are very suc­cess­ful in terms of phys­i­cal mobil­i­ty and are ful­ly oper­a­tional. But a lot remains to be done if we con­sid­er the con­straints of the bat­tle­field or mil­i­tary oper­a­tions in a broad­er sense – both in terms of dis­cre­tion and robust­ness, we are only at the begin­ning of this story.

The great­est chal­lenges today relate to autonomous move­ment. Unknown and com­plex ter­rain has lit­tle in com­mon with a road where, broad­ly speak­ing, there are only pedes­tri­ans and cars. In a mil­i­tary con­text the ter­rain is more rugged and var­ied. The need to be able to nav­i­gate using GPS coor­di­nates remains the same, but when it comes to the details of plan­ning the route the slight­est branch can be an obsta­cle that must be detect­ed, eval­u­at­ed, and man­aged – either by soft­ware or mechan­i­cal­ly. So, there are addi­tion­al, high­er-lev­el challenges.

How­ev­er, design­ers imag­ine com­plete sys­tems, with each method pro­vid­ing solu­tions to cir­cum­vent cer­tain prob­lems. In robot­ics, for exam­ple, aer­i­al sys­tems can be sim­pler than ter­res­tri­al sys­tems. How­ev­er also brings a form of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, unless one can fly very high, far from oper­a­tions con­trol, which involves tech­ni­cal choic­es. If we con­sid­er the on-board capac­i­ty, ground vehi­cles (ver­sus walk­ing or fly­ing) allow us to car­ry more ener­gy and include more sen­sors. Each sys­tem has its own advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages; at the moment, there is no sin­gle ‘best’ solu­tion. We think more in terms of the dif­fer­ent applications.

Is full auton­o­my out of reach today?

On the bat­tle­field, cer­tain­ly. It is not in the com­ing years that we will see ful­ly autonomous robots car­ry­ing out com­plex mis­sions. Robots will prob­a­bly appear along­side humans. Rather than humanoid (or dog-like) robots, we should imag­ine wheeled or tracked robots and the robo­t­i­sa­tion of equipment.

For exam­ple, we will see dri­ving aids in the form of con­voys, as is already being exper­i­ment­ed with in the civ­il sec­tor with con­voys of semi-trail­ers, or in the form of self-dri­ving vehi­cles that take over from humans on open ter­rain. This lat­ter could allow the dri­ver to leave con­trols and rest for an hour.

The main objec­tive in all these tech­ni­cal efforts is to save human lives. But this goes hand in hand with the search for oth­er, dif­fer­ent, more effi­cient ways of act­ing on the ene­my. Robot­ics also comes into play in a con­text where new threats are appear­ing, which are them­selves dehu­man­ised, such as swarms of drones. This is there­fore a ques­tion of pro­tect­ing one­self, pro­tect­ing dri­vers and ground sol­diers, by mech­a­nis­ing and automat­ing cer­tain tasks.

Robot­ics is only a new stage in what is already a long his­to­ry. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, the Ger­mans designed the V1 to lim­it the loss of pilots, which are rare and high­ly qual­i­fied per­son­nel. Today’s armies rea­son in the same way with all troops, because in dis­tant con­flicts that are not ful­ly legit­i­mate in the eyes of pub­lic opin­ion, a sin­gle human life lost has a great impact.

How­ev­er, we must not pre­tend that we are not wit­ness­ing changes. Fif­teen years ago, the appli­ca­tions of robot­ics were still logis­tics, obser­va­tion, and sup­port. Today there is a switch towards to lethal­i­ty. This effort is due in part to the per­cep­tion that the threats faced have evolved: in the short term, the per­ceived dan­ger comes from swarms of small drones. But large coun­tries can devel­op larg­er, stealth­i­er drones: the devel­op­ment of autonomous weapons sys­tems is a response to this threat, in an inevitable tech­no­log­i­cal race.

What are the deter­mi­nants of this tech­no­log­i­cal race?

An essen­tial and new ele­ment, for me, is that we are talk­ing about dual tech­nolo­gies, which are not being devel­oped sole­ly for the mil­i­tary. This is very dif­fer­ent from what hap­pened in the nuclear or aero­nau­ti­cal sec­tors, not to men­tion the many tech­nolo­gies devel­oped with­in the frame­work of the Amer­i­can DARPA that were then dis­sem­i­nat­ed to the civil­ian world (think of the Inter­net, GPS, etc.).

Today, it can even be con­sid­ered that the civil­ian world (indus­tri­al­ists, major soft­ware play­ers) a melt­ing pot for tech­nolo­gies that could rev­o­lu­tionise this type of equip­ment. The mil­i­tary have under­stood this and are look­ing for syn­er­gies with the civil­ian world.

This is the case when it comes to the abil­i­ty to analyse sur­round­ings, where algo­rithms must be capa­ble of pro­cess­ing huge vol­umes of data. This is where the civil­ian world may have an advan­tage as the num­ber of sys­tems deployed that can acquire data is much greater. Autonomous vehi­cles that car man­u­fac­tur­ers and equip­ment sup­pli­ers are cur­rent­ly work­ing on must deal with deci­sion-mak­ing, tra­jec­to­ry plan­ning and per­cep­tion prob­lems, which are all func­tion­al­i­ties that are also essen­tial for mil­i­tary use. Even if, as we have seen, the chal­lenges are greater in a mil­i­tary con­text, and the data more dif­fi­cult to col­lect, the same tech­no­log­i­cal build­ing blocks are being developed.