How robots are changing the defence sector

Governments are on a mission to evolve their defence capabilities to ward off the threats of today and tomorrow. Thanks to developments in robotics and AI, the possibilities for military applications are exploding. 

At Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, on 6 April 2018, US and UK soldiers carried out an unprecedented exercise. Using remote-controlled diggers, they cleared explosives and filled in a trench while an unmanned armoured vehicle provided cover with a white smokescreen.

This is just one example of how the military is using robots today. Around the world, governments are investing billions in this type of tech because of its potential to reduce costs, boost capabilities, and most importantly, save lives. In fact, the value of the global military robot market is expected to increase from around US$ 1.3 billion in 2016 to US$ 2.6 billion by the end of 2024.

From drones to humanoids, here we break down some of the robot technology currently being developed and deployed, and look at how it’s changing the defence sector.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)

The defence sector has been using UAVs, or drones, equipped with infrared cameras, GPS and lasers for years – from small intelligence and surveillance drones to medium-sized armed-combat drones and spy planes – and is continually investing. According to a report by Goldman Sachs, global militaries will spend $70 billion on drone technology by 2020.

DARPA is currently working on semi-autonomous gremlin drones that can be launched and retrieved by a mothership. Also in the US pocket-sized reconnaissance bots are being tested. Meanwhile, the German and French defence ministers recently announced plans to develop a new fighter plane dubbed the ‘Eurodrone‘ set for take-off in 2040.

Employing drones for military purposes has the potential to be make certain tasks more effective and cost efficient, plus save lives. They can be sent to situations where manned flight is considered too risky or difficult, act as a 24/7 eye in the sky and deploy arms with greater accuracy.

But just as easily as drones can be used to protect national interests, they can also be used by the enemy and terrorists for the same purposes, including to launch explosive, chemical and biological attacks or jam mobile phone signals. This means the skies need to be watched, and drones that can fight drones could be the next step.

Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs)

Just as drones are being deployed to the skies, similar remote-controlled and semi-autonomous robots equipped with software, sensors, controls and communication links are being used by the military on the ground. What’s their mission? Much like the UAVs, everything from surveillance and reconnaissance to cargo carrying, mine clearance and attack or counterattack.

Russia, alongside the US, is one of the countries driving advances in UGV technology. Military manufacturer JSC 766 UPTK recently deployed their URAN-6 UGV in Syria to disarm bombs and mines and explore uncharted areas. They’re also developing a 10-ton combat UGV, with a 30mm cannon, a 7.62mm machine gun and anti-tank rockets, as well as the T-14, a semi-autonomous tank.

UGVs are becoming critical to ground missions, acting as eyes, ears and even combat soldiers. By sending robots in first, humans are kept safely out of danger. Their capabilities also enable better civilian protection, even in the aftermath of combat, as they can defuse residual bombs and mines.

However as combat UGVs become more autonomous, many see the potential for these robots to override humans. Putting rest to these claims, Dmitry Ostapchuk, CEO of JSC 766 UPTK, stresses that “the decision over target engagement is left to a person”, meaning humans will still ultimately be the ones deciding whether to make the hit.

Autonomous ships and submarines

Autonomous submarines scouring the oceans tracking and engaging enemy vessels. While this might sound like sci-fi, the technology is already being prototyped. DARPA’s 40-metre Sea Hunter, set to be operational later this year, can reach speeds of 27 knots and operates without a single person aboard for up to three months at a time. Boeing’s 15.5-metre-long Echo Voyager isn’t far behind.

The US office of Naval Research also recently demonstrated a fleet of autonomous boats collectively communicating and swarming a target. Future use? Protecting harbours from attack.  Asia and Europe are also working on various unmanned ship projects. In the UK, the Royal Navy recently took ownership of an autonomous minesweeper system that can clear sea mines.

Autonomous submarines and ships that use on board computer systems, GPS, sonar, laser, infrared and other sensors, are improving surveillance and enabling massive savings. For Sea Hunter operational cost estimates range from US$15,000 to US$20,000 a day. Compare that to a daily cost of around US$700,000 to operate a destroyer.

According to DARPA, these vessels could also revolutionise US military operations and lead to “a new vision of naval surface warfare”, with no need for humans to be aboard warships. One concern with unmanned vessels far out at sea is safety, but the latest tech complies with regulations.

Humanoid robot soldiers

We’ve seen droids armed with guns in the movies, and now it looks like real-life technology has caught up. Russia’s humanoid robot FEDOR, dubbed the Terminator, has been trained to shoot from both hands.  Although designed for rescue work, military uses have been suggested and it’s possible to imagine an army of similar AI applications being sent into battle.

Russia is not the only one with this tech. Around the world, hardware and software is also being further developed to advance the ability of humanoid robots to move around, make decisions, pick up objects and carry out tasks. Valkyrie (Nasa) and Atlas (Boston Robotics) are two such humanoid robots with ever-broadening capabilities.

While the intention is not to send FEDOR style robots into combat at the moment, they have the potential to navigate our cities and buildings, use our weapons and work in teams.

The ethical and safety concerns surrounding robot soldiers are great, of course. Do we really want autonomous intelligent beings walking around wielding weapons? For the time being, unarmed mission assistance is likely to be the first scenario in which they’ll serve.

Armed solider exoskeletons

Is it a robot, is it a human? Well, yes – it’s both. Deemed a real-life Iron Man suit, the US Special Operations Command, with the help of Harvard and DARPA, is currently developing a titanium, battery-powered exoskeleton under the project name TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit), designed to be worn by soldiers to boost strength, endurance and ergonomics.

In addition to a durable exoskeleton that supports the operator, the suit comprises physiological and biological sensors, actuators that serve as the muscles to power the suit, processors and computers, a helmet with digital display and other communications systems.

TALOS and other exoskeletons being developed in countries such as Europe, China and Russia will help support soldiers as they walking long distances or carry heavy loads, including casualties. They also have the potential to offer ballistic and bomb protection in an attack.

By conserving human energy and reducing injury, soldiers will be able to keep going for longer, reducing down time – a huge military advantage. Despite some residual issues, the first prototype is expected to be built by the end of 2018.

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