Killer bots or battlefield helpers?

The field of robotics is changing the way we live, revolutionising everything from industrial processes, driving and even cleaning our houses. Increasingly sophisticated technology and the advantages of using robots, including cost-savings and safety, has seen a boom in robotic technology in recent years.

Unsurprisingly, the military has also taken an interest in robotics. Like the autonomous ‘driverless car’ revolution currently taking place in the commercial world, the military is also looking at how unmanned vehicles can re-shape operations and how humans conduct warfare.

Of course the use of unmanned systems in the air is now well-established but the full utilisation of ‘drones’ in other domains – including ground robots for missions such as load-carrying or surveillance – is still some years off. That’s not to say academia and industry have not been investing in militarised ground robots, they have, but the world’s armies haven’t fully bought into the concept apart from use in very specialist roles.

So far, at least.

THEMIS armed

Estonian company Milrem has made significant strides in the UGV space (Photo: author)

That might be changing, as I set out in a recent in-depth analysis looking at industry’s efforts to develop and manufacture UGVsPresumably responding to emerging requirements from several armed forces it appears that industry is now stepping-up efforts in developing various types of ground robot, including those that integrate a weapon system.

The justification for weaponising a UGV, much like the reasoning for robotics in other sectors, is increasing safety and significantly increasing capabilities at a much lower cost. Companies in the US, Germany, Estonia and Ukraine have all funded projects that look at enhancing the firepower of a ground robot.

But fielding a weaponised system – such as missiles or machine guns – will once again raise concerns about a ‘Terminator’ scenario involving killer robots and the possibility that UGVs could autonomously kill other humans on the battlefield.

Ukrainian Fantom

Ukrainian company Spets Techno Export has developed an armed UGV concept (Photo: author)

That’s unlikely however mainly because the weapons are operated by a human via a control station, similar to how remote weapon stations on vehicles are currently used. There is also the strong belief, among western companies and militaries at least, that a human must always remain ‘in-the-loop’ when it comes to weapon engagements whether that is on a manned or unmanned platform.

Don’t expect that to change anytime soon, unless the operational scenario or mission truly requires it.

Whether you are for or against the armed UGV concept the fact is that you can expect to see much more of the technology in the next few years. How much the militaries of the world will embrace the nascent technology is still guesswork, but if recent exhibitions are anything to go by, then we’ll likely see more companies look to enter this market in the near future.

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