Robots and the future Army
29 Oct 2015|


A recent post on The Strategist wrote persuasively about the potential offered by robots for future naval shipbuilding productivity, urging each of the three SEA 1000 Competitive Evaluation Process contenders to include robot research and development (R&D) projects in their final submissions due by 30 November 2015.

These R&D projects would investigate how and where to use robotic technology when building Australia’s Future Submarines and the Future Surface Combatants.

What use is robotic technology to Australia’s Future Army?

Given that the first of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robots states ‘a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm’ what does this mean for army robot applications?

There’s a legitimate role for robots on the battlefield, separating soldiers from avoidable threats, and there will be an increase in their use following ADF experience in Afghanistan. In addition to unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) themselves, other key areas of development include the vehicle payloads and attachments such as sensors, cameras and interrogation tools.

Actually, looking more deeply at the second part of the First Law one could see how robotic UGVs could prevent harm to soldiers by carrying out various tasks including improvised explosive device (IED) searches, bomb disposal, ground surveillance, checkpoint operations, urban street presence, reconnoitring urban settings prior to military raids, and ‘drawing first fire’ from insurgents and terrorists. Humanoid robots under development are capable of detecting then rescuing/recovering wounded and dead soldiers from the battlefield.

Apart from when directly controlled by a soldier through a tethered lead or radio link, there’s the possibility of programming a robot for limited autonomous applications like patrolling a battleground perimeter after setting GPS way points. The Israeli Defence Force already uses their Guardium MK III autonomous UGVs to monitor Israel’s land borders.

Semi-autonomous robots, although sometimes slightly noisy, can ‘follow the leader’ in logistics operations carrying a heavy load, leaving the soldier free and fully fit for action. The US Marines deployed their MULE at RIMPAC 2014. This is a quadruped robot developed as a mule, which can traverse difficult terrain carrying 180kg of soldiers’ combat supplies for over 30km without refueling.

ADF used small tracked Talon RPVs in Afghanistan for IED detection and disposal, as well as identification of hazardous materials and combat engineering support. It has brought them back to Australia. Talon, directed by an operator control unit through a two-way radio or fibre-optic link, has impressive performance across ground, around and over obstacles, as well as the capability provided by fitting different sensors and tools.

Army currently employs eight remote control tracked MV-10 Mine Flails, developed by Croatia-based DOK-ING. The medium sized MV-10 was selected for the LAND 144 Countermine Capability project. The system can clear all types of anti-personnel mines, anti-tank mines and unexploded ordnance.

The Defence White Paper 2015 will reveal more thinking on the potential use of robotic devices in the future army. Apart from examples quoted above, those could include searching areas for survivors during humanitarian and disaster response operations; as mobile communications nodes when fixed communications networks are disabled in a natural disaster; improving targeting in an urban setting to minimise collateral damage; and as ‘eyes and ears’ maintaining watch over an ADF defended area.

The Directorate of Future Land Warfare, in conjunction with the Defence Science and Technology Group (DST Group), is currently undertaking a line of research to assess how robotics and autonomous systems can be best utilised by future land forces. DST Group and University of Sydney’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics have formed a Centre of Expertise in Defence Autonomous and Uninhabited Vehicles to pursue academic research and develop patented technologies in this field.

One chilling international military development is the possibility of lethal autonomous robots (LARs) which, once activated, will be able to roam without further human intervention. In the same way that land mines can’t discriminate between innocent civilians and combat troops, so LARs can make their own targeting decisions.

United Nations Human Rights Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, says ‘Machines lack morality and mortality, and many people believe they should as a result not have life and death powers over humans.’ He believes there’s a need to have a human decision-maker in the sensor-to-shooter loop and that deployment of LARS would weaken the role and rule of international law, undermining the international security system.

Australia’s Future Army will take advantage of robotic technology to save soldiers’ lives and rescue survivors from natural disasters, but it’s difficult to see how in our culture they will ever permit any armed robots to be deployed without ultimate human control before lethal force is used.