Armed Autonomy: Mechatronics plus Software plus Ammo

The Killer Robots are Coming!

Fact: According to a new story in LiveScience (“Will the U.S. Have a Droid Army“), “autonomous robots with the ability to open fire upon their own initiative are under development in other countries.”  Robotics researchers Doug Few and Bill Smart at Washington University in St. Louis are quoted with the assessment that “the U.S. military may be 30 percent robotic by the year 2020.” 

Analysis: I’ve been having some interesting discussions with DoD and their contractors about robotics lately, and the question of autonomous behavior comes up frequently, though infrequently about armed systems.  Among other reasons, Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) places great store in unarmed robotic systems coordinating with other command and control or combat systems.

Robocop vs ED-209In the movie Robocop, there was a big difference between the actual “hero” robot, and its main “bad-robot” adversary, the ED-209.  Robocop had a man inside, or what was left of one. ED stood for “Enforcement Droid,” and it was a droid all right – autonomous, with no in-the-moment human control beyond initial programming.  There were somewhat obvious differences between their actions, with dramatic consequences.

Autonomous behavior can be highly desirable in robotics; that’s what takes it beyond just remote-control machinery really (Wikipedia has a short history of the research area), and it is one of the focal points in Microsoft Research’s work in robotics.  See “Robots Among Us” for a practical description of our funded external projects, or there’s this statement from our Robotics research team:

Recent advances in both mechatronics and software have started to suggest that the long-promised future of intelligent autonomous machines, as widely portrayed in popular science fiction for example, may yet be achievable. The difficulty of this challenge, and the persistently compelling nature of striving to build such a device, may explain why robots never seem to lose their attraction to generations of engineers.”

Autonomy is great, but armed autonomy is a serious issue in military and law-enforcement use of robots.  If you’re in the field, you know the debates, and if you’re a civilian onlooker you can certainly understand the reasons for the debates – which of course are political and ethical, not technical.

As pointed out in a Washington University story about the Few/Smart work [please, no Army-slogan jokes], all of the Army’s current robotic force is teleoperated from a remote location. As Dr. Smart argues, “It’s a chain of command thing. You don’t want to give autonomy to a weapons delivery system. You want to have a human hit the button.”

So far, that principle has been the rule in U.S. deployed systems, whether you’re talking armed unmanned airborne vehicles, the armed Mule Light Assault vehicle, or the new unmanned ground vehicles, such as the curious SWORDS program.  Blogs had great coverage of the vehicle and program during its Iraq deployment (see StormWarning’s “Armed Robots Deployed” or WIRED DangerRoom’s “First Armed Robots on Patrol“), but for a follow-up and current status see the retrospective account as Popular Mechanics described it in their March 2008 issue,

Last June the Army deployed the first-ever armed UGVs. Three SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Remote Direct-Action System) robots landed in Iraq, each equipped with an M249 light machine gun. These UGVs are essentially guns on tracks, a variant of the remote-control Talon bots routinely blown up while investigating improvised explosive devices. When the trio was approved for combat duty, the potential for historic robot-versus-human carnage lit up the blogosphere. Never mind the dozens of air-to-ground Hellfire missiles that have already been launched by a squadron of armed Predator drones over the past seven years—this was a robot soldier, packing the same machine gun used by ground troops.

The historic deployment ended with a whimper after the Army announced that the SWORDS would not be given the chance to see combat. According to a statement from Duane Gotvald, deputy project manager of the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office, which oversees robots used by the Army and Marines, “While there has been considerable interest in fielding the system, some technical issues still remain and SWORDS is not currently funded.” The robots never fired a shot, but Gotvald pointed out that the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division used them for surveillance and “peacekeeping/guard operations.”

The Army is still deploying other small unarmed robots, like the Small UGV (SUGV), under the FCS program.

Armed Autonomy Interest in Other Countries

Other nations have similar programs; Israel’s Guardium is much like SWORDS, as is South Korean “Intelligent Surveillance and Guard Robot.”   China’s robotics research began during the 1980s, and in 2000 their National University of Defense Technology unveiled “our first class humanoid robot,” named “Xianxingzhe” or Forerunner, and the Xinhua report at the time said that “Our country’s robot development level will advance to the world front.”  Funny thing: some Japanese sites began to parody the Chinese robot, “Senkousha” in Japanese, and there has grown up a large online Senkousha literature of comic robots.

More seriously, recently Ilya Kramnik, a leading Russian military analyst (he’s the military correspondent for RIA Novosti news agency), published a very interesting review of the prospects for autonomous armed robots (“Robot Armies: Another Military Revolution“). Kramnik describes several thought-provoking if not harrowing scenarios of future robot combat which don’t seem that far away technically:

There will be a time when robots will become the best value for the money. When this happens, a couple of battalions will be able to destroy an enemy tank division… There is no doubt that a tank battle against these machines will be similar to the feats of Zinovy Kolobanov or Otto Karius (Soviet and German tank aces of World War II)… Human losses of robotized battalions will be minimal unless an artillery regiment of the tank division destroys the control company. But it is likely to lose the artillery duel to the artillery division of the robotized enemy, which will be actively using pilotless aircraft to adjust its fire… 

Warfare will become a race of life against hardware. Its outcome is obvious – it is much easier to mourn robots than people.

Bonus Eye Candy:  For those of you who are not so old-school and paranoid about robots having a finger on the trigger, here’s a video of the South Korean ISGR, “a robotic sentry gun designed to detect and if necessary fire upon intruders along the border with North Korea.”  I was at the DMZ just over a year ago and toured along the long heavily patrolled, sensor-laden border, but these beasts had not yet been deployed.  Halfway through the video you’ll see shots of the tracking-control and AI-driven decision screens. 

I guess the formula is, Mechatronics + Software + Ammo = Bad-Ass ISR.

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7 Responses

  1. I am about to publish a pictorial book on exactly this subject called WAR BOTS: HOW U.S. MIlITARY ROBOTS ARE TRANSFORMING WAR IN IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN, AND THE FUTURE by David Axe of Watch for the announcement in a week or two.


  2. Cool! Very interesting topic, I’ll look forward to the book.


  3. how this roberts are prepared?


    • Hollywood plenty of DVD’s tell that in fiulm. But it was to be ex-pected anyhow. Ulotimately USA wuill have 90% Unemployment and 95% machines fuel shortages and the other 5% in charge.


  4. You should tell them Robocop is hollywood, don’t need brain on top in harm’s way, better close to heart For mobility/efficiency I find monkey 4 hand are far more dextrous & practical and of course no need for copulater bulging for show. Keep it well away from man’s brains. Put that in the finger and Girls in the shoulder, so hello how you going is more exciting.


  5. […] Armed Autonomy: Mechatronics plus Software plus Ammo […]


  6. I have zero knowledge about the robot technology and its upcoming generations, but after reading this informative article, I am very sure that I know a little bit about the upcoming robots and its mechanism.


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