THE RISE OF THE MACHINES
By Eur Ing Paul Parkinson, Senior Systems Architect, Aerospace & Defence, Wind River
This article considers the reasons for the increased adoption of military robots in recent years, the evolution and exploitation of underlying technologies, and potential future applications and the issues involved.
Military robots used to belong to the realms of science fiction popularised by movies such as the Terminator series, but science fiction is now becoming reality. Since the end of the Cold War era, there has been a significant change in conventional engagement requirements, with the long-established scenarios of infantry, armoured divisions and air forces being deployed against a similarly equipped enemy replaced by asymmetric warfare scenarios involving coalition forces against irregular forces in remote terrain and urban warfare environments.
Armed forces have realised that traditional forces need to adapt in order to be successful in these new theatres of operation. In particular, they are presented with the significant challenge of being able to successfully engage with a dispersed irregular enemy, which may use guerrilla tactics, in urban settings on remote terrain. This represents a new type of threat which can present a higher risk to dismounted forces, and the loss of life which may be incurred may also have political consequences.
For these scenarios, an alternative which reduces the threat to soldiers is needed. Robots have been used extensively for bomb-disposal over the years, and they have the potential for adaptation for mine-clearance and urban house clearance roles. In addition, they could be used in an advance reconnaissance role. Being the first exposed to potential threats, they reduce the risk to soldiers. Unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) are another form of robot which can be used in a reconnaissance role, and they have been widely used to provide broader situational awareness of the battlefield area.
A second class of robot is needed, a surveillance robot, to perform a similar function for soldiers, perhaps even with the potential to outperform their human counterparts, and without ever tiring. An obvious example of this is nighttime patrols and sentry duty, where human vision is impaired compared to daylight and the night vision receptors can play tricks in the dark, leading to false alarms, or worse, nondetection of threats. A good example of the use of this technology in the civil domain is QinetiQ’s Tarsier robot, which checks airport runways for foreign object debris, to avoid crashes such as that of the Concorde in 2000.
The third class of robot, which is somewhat controversial, is the armed combat robot, for use in offensive combat operations. This is viewed as being important for high-risk and high-threat engagement scenarios and could be deployed instead of troops to reduce the risk of casualties. It could also be used where compromise or capture could be politically sensitive. In the airborne environment, the Predator-B UCAV extends the capabilities of the Predator UAV through the addition of ground strike capability and can be deployed on operations where there is an unacceptable level of risk to a military aircraft and its pilot.
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the development of military robots, due to the increasing need referred to previously but also due to the technical maturity and availability of technologies which enable robots to perform their basic functions. These technologies include computer vision, communications and autonomy.
The potential of robots is evident by the state-of-the-art computer vision technologies which provide them with capabilities which far exceed their human counterparts. The use of multispectral electro-optic and infrared (EO/IR) sensors by high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAVs for reconnaissance and target identification is already widely