Military robots: will the wars of the future be fought by intelligent machines?

  • DARPA’s Squad X pairs soldiers with autonomous scout robots
  • New robot can turn any airplane into an autonomous drone
  • Russia is developing armed military robots to assist its ground forces
  • South Korea’s new military robots can mimic various animals
  • Will future wars be fought by robots?

War is a terrible thing. Yet – and sadly – it has been a constant feature of human existence on Earth. Our history is fraught with violence and conflict. As one war comes to an end, the question always seems to be when – not if – the next one will break out. In recent years, to minimise the risks to soldiers and reduce the number of casualties, militaries around the world have been increasingly incorporating robotic and AI systems into their operations.

A horizontal bar graph showing the predicted growth of the global military robots market between 2017 and 2022.

“It is more a question of who is not using them,” says Peter W Singer, one of the world’s foremost experts on warfare and defence. “We’ve tracked robotics use by everyone from China and Israel to Belarus and Belgium. It also includes non-state actors that range from ISIS to journalists.” According to a recent report published by MarketsandMarkets, the global military robots market is predicted to grow from $16.79 billion in 2017 to $30.83 billion by 2022. Today, robots are used for a wide variety of military applications, including search and rescue, reconnaissance, transportation, mine clearance, detecting chemical weapons, breaching enemy obstacles, and targeting. And judging by some of the recent developments, it may be only a matter of time before they’ll be used for fighting as well.

DARPA’s Squad X pairs soldiers with autonomous scout robots

‘The fog of war’ is a phrase used to describe the uncertainty regarding one’s surroundings experienced by all participants in a military conflict. Despite numerous technological advances in the past years that allow soldiers in the field to gather more information about their enemies and surroundings than ever before, the fog of war remains one of the biggest issues on the battlefield today. To solve this problem, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the Squad X project, which aims to eliminate the fog of war by pairing ground soldiers with autonomous robots and drones.

Tested for the first time in November 2018, the project uses autonomous robots and drones to survey the surroundings, identify potential threats, and coordinate soldiers’ movements. All of the information gathered by these machines is analysed by an artificial intelligence system and presented to the soldiers on off-the-shelf Android tablets. The project relies on two separate automated systems. The first one is called BITS Electronic Attack Module (BEAM). Developed by CACI, it allows soldiers to detect, locate, and attack potential threats in the radio frequency and cyber domains. On the other hand, Lockheed Martin’s Augmented Spectral Situational Awareness and Unaided Localization for Transformative Squads (ASSAULTS) uses autonomous robots and drones equipped with sensor systems to detect enemy locations and engage them with precision 40mm grenades.

The robots themselves are unarmed, though. All they are designed to do is gather the necessary information about the battlefield and analyse it, after which the soldiers can decide what to do with it. “The human is of course involved with any lethal action, but at this point, it’s about establishing superior situational awareness,” explains Squad X program manager Lt. Col. Phil Root. Whatever the case, this project could herald a new approach to military strategy, whereby a squad of autonomous robots would be sent into the danger zone first to gather as much information as possible before humans are allowed to go in.

New robot can turn any airplane into an autonomous drone

Often touted as the future of military aviation, unmanned, autonomous aircraft have been around for quite some time. Promising to minimise the risks to human pilots during dangerous missions and hazardous operations, autonomous planes have already been put into service by militaries around the world. But what if, instead of spending millions on developing autonomous planes from scratch, there was a way to turn an existing fleet of military aircraft into autonomous aircraft? Well, that’s the idea behind the new robot recently unveiled by the US Air Force.

Turning an existing airplane into an autonomous one isn’t that difficult if its joysticks, pedals, and other physical controllers are electronically linked to the engines and control surfaces. In that case, a simple software upgrade and an additional computer control system to handle the extra processing is all that’s required. However, older airplanes require far more extensive hardware modifications to make them autonomous. To address this issue, the Air Force Research Laboratory joined forces with DZYNE Technologies Incorporated to develop the Robotic Pilot Unmanned Conversion Program, a robotic system that can make any existing aircraft autonomous.

Also known as ROBOpilot, the robot is installed within a cockpit in place of the seats and it uses actuators, sensors, a robotic arm, and its own power system to operate the plane’s yoke, adjust the throttle, push on the rudder and brake pedals, and flip switches on the dashboard. It even has a camera system to allow it to monitor feedback from various dials and gauges on a plane’s dashboard. In fact, the ROBOpilot is so precise that it can satisfy all of the FAA guidelines required to make proper and legal flights. During a recent test flight at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, the ROBOpilot successfully piloted a small Cessna plane for two full hours. It was able to take off, navigate a specific route, and finally land without requiring any human assistance.

Russia is developing armed military robots to assist its ground forces

Not to be outdone by their historical rivals, the Russian military is also working on developing a robotic system designed to assist its infantry. However, unlike the American version, the Russian robots will be heavily armed and capable of engaging the enemy. Unveiled for the first time in a state-sponsored video, the Marker robot is a modular robotic platform with open information architecture developed by the Advanced Research Foundation (ARF), the Russian equivalent to DARPA.

The video shows an unmanned ground vehicle equipped with a machine gun and anti-tank grenade launchers. However, being modular in nature, it could also potentially be equipped with a wide variety of other weapons. The Maker robot is designed to work alongside a human soldier, who acts as a spotter and provides the robot with a target using the sight of his weapon. Alternatively, the robot could also be controlled remotely. The video also shows a squad of 15 quadcopters grouped into three swarms of five, which appear to be linked with the ground robot, presumably to assist it with targeting. “The evolution of combat robots is on the path of increasing the ability to perform tasks in autonomous mode with a gradual reduction in the role of the operator,” says an ARF spokesperson in a statement.

South Korea’s new military robots can mimic various animals

South Korea’s Defence Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA), the agency tasked with acquiring weapons for the military, recently announced plans to develop a new generation of military robots to support the nation’s human soldiers. What makes these new robots particularly interesting is that they will be based on real creatures, which will allow them to mimic the movements and capabilities of animals like birds, snakes, insects, and marine creatures – and use these skills on the battlefield.

These biobots, which DAPA plans to deploy as early as 2024, will include bird-like androids and swimming robots that will be tasked with reconnaissance operations, miniature mechanical flying devices that will gather information on the movements of enemy forces, and robots that will be able to move like snakes to allow them to access constricted spaces. In addition to assisting armed forces in military operations, the robots will also be used in search-and-rescue operations (and) in areas affected by natural disasters.

“Biometric robots will be a game-changer in future warfare and related technologies are expected to bring about great ripple effects throughout the defence industry,” says Park Jeong-eun, a spokesman for the agency. The South Korean military currently has almost 600,000 active personnel and another 3.1 million reservists. However, due to a falling birthrate and a growing resistance to obligatory military service among young men, the South Korean military will have to increasingly rely on technological solutions to defend the nation in the future.

Will future wars be fought by robots?

Humanity has long dreamed about a future in which there will be no more wars. However, knowing what we know about human nature and our propensity to resolve our differences with violence, that may be rather difficult, if not downright impossible to achieve. If preventing war is indeed impossible, the next best thing to do would be to find a way to reduce the number of human casualties. And that’s where robots come in.

In recent years, robotic technology has taken on an increasingly prominent role in military operations. Whether they are used to survey the surroundings and identify potential threats, pilot unmanned aircraft, or even engage the enemy directly, militaries around the world are increasingly relying on robots to keep their soldiers out of harm’s way. Does that mean that robots could soon replace human soldiers altogether? Not very likely, at least not in the foreseeable future. Despite major advances in robotic technology in recent years, there are still some tasks robots are not well suited for. It’s far more likely that robots will work alongside human soldiers and provide support by taking over some of the more dangerous tasks. Whatever happens, it’s becoming increasingly clear that wars of the future will be quite different from those of the past and that intelligent machines will play a major role.

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

Trendwatcher, futurist and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk takes you to an inspiring future that will dramatically change the way we live, work and do business.

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