The notion of alpha male dominance is as old as life itself. Most of the time when two males establish dominance, they don’t fight to the mortal end. What typically happens is that they’ll start by attempting to intimidate the other party into backing down. If that fails, they’ll scrap a bit until the loser gives up. It’s pretty much standard behavior when two males of any species get aggressive. The reason that intimidation works so well is because then you’re always left with two strong male wolves at the end of the fight, as opposed to one alpha male and one dead beta male. Two males are always better than one when it comes to killing the next elk to feed the pack. Unfortunately, this notion is kind of lost when two countries go at it. Maybe that’s all about to change.
Let’s think about the notion of robot soldiers for a second. If both sides go at it with robot soldiers, you could have “wars” where nobody gets killed. Just like in the wolf example, the side with the winning alpha robots could just say “alright you morons, back down or else we’re going to consider killing a few of your humans.” Disputes between countries could be settled by having a big robot battle, perhaps in a designated area. Spectators could get in on the action and we could sell tickets. Nations around the world could take the piss out of each other and vent their frustrations without anyone getting killed. Some anthropologists speculate that this is actually a key function that the World Cup serves today. (For our readers from ‘Murica, the World Cup is a big soccer game that’s played once every four years where literally everyone on the planet gets involved except you lot – which might be why you keep trying to fight everyone.)
If we’re going to conceptualize what a robot military might look like, let’s first get beyond the visual of a bipedal robot running around with a scary metal face killing people. Let’s start to think more in terms of automating the various pieces of equipment that the military uses today. Just remember that the likelihood our MBAs are going to find the latest and greatest military tech with a few Google searches is zero. What we’re trying to do here is use our imaginations a bit and think about what tomorrow’s military robots might actually look like.
Autonomous vs. Semi-autonomous
As with any move towards autonomy, we’re likely to see varying degrees of autonomy come into play when it comes to military robots. This means that in most cases, humans will be sitting in some comfy chairs operating military equipment remotely in shifts, which is what the military already does with their remotely controlled drones. With the emergence of 5G, we will soon have enough bandwidth so that it’s possible to completely immerse a soldier in a battlefield situation. This means that we can go beyond drones and start looking at remotely operating nearly every piece of battle equipment, and the military can then turn towards eSporting events to find the elite soldiers of tomorrow. Let’s look at some examples of what types of military robots are being developed.
Self Driving Tank Drone
There is a serious shortage of good movies these days but watch Fury if you get the chance. That movie will teach you a bit about the importance of having a tank crew that operates as a single unit. Usually, a tank crew consists of three or four guys with the following jobs according to The Royal Tank Regiment, the oldest tank unit in the world:
While you could look at automating each of these roles independently, the Chinese just decided to do away with all of them. An article by Popular Mechanics this year talks about how the Chinese army is “experimenting with turning older Type 59 tanks into remote-controlled drones.” These are old Soviet-era tanks that are just waiting to be scrapped, so it’s not like they need to do anything too sophisticated with them. While the Limies may be reading this and having a good laugh thinking about how much fun they would have taking those “tank drones” out in a real battle, there is merit to the idea. The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) is developing hardware-software kits that can be used to make various types of military vehicles autonomous, and the Russians are said to have developed a tank that can be remotely operated from a range of up to six miles.
The ability for an autonomous conversion kit to adapt to any vehicle type is especially important when it comes to logistics. According to some bigwigs at TARDEC who spoke with the Detroit news, during the war in Iraq, the U.S. lost more soldiers in logistics operations than we did in combat.
Autonomy in Logistics
A great deal of work that gets performed during military operations involves moving equipment and troops around. We had a chance to sit down with a logistics specialist from the U.S. Army – whose name shall not be named – and discussed how robotics technology might be used for logistical solutions, like transporting things. Logistics back at home mean using trains a lot, but abroad, it’s all about multi-modal transportation. From year 2000 to present day, wars have primarily been fought in landlocked countries. Depending on where a war is being fought, logistics requirements can change dramatically. A country like Russia doesn’t have many ports, so a war would be fought on land. Companies like British defense firm QinetiQ are developing last-mile solutions like the one seen below:
In one of the above pictures, you can see how this robot might actually carry smaller robots, perhaps some armed with weaponry. According to an article by Tack & Purpose, a prototype variant of the Titan unmanned ground vehicle, or UGV, mounts a Javelin anti-tank missile as well as a .50-caliber machine gun to allow for some sort of dangerous hybrid tank robot thingy. When it comes to autonomous transportation in the military, the same technologies can be applied that are used for commercial logistics – like the world’s biggest robot being used by an Australian mining company. The real usefulness for military robotics is gathering data and putting fewer lives at risk, which is a good segue into our next type of military robot that gathers data and protects fighter pilots.
From Fighter Jets to Robo Jets
While most people think that commercial pilots actually fly the plane, they don’t really. Their job is to make everyone think that a responsible human is driving, when in fact it’s nearly all automated these days. The idea of a plane operating itself, at least semi-autonomously, isn’t that far-fetched. However, according to an article by The Drive, the U.S. Air Force seems to think that the ultimate Unmanned Air Combat Vehicle (UCAV) ought to be semi-disposable. In other words, if the thing smashes into the side of a mountain because the algorithm was confused, they’re only out $2 or $3 million.
One little-known defense company called Kratos (KTOS) is working on some cool projects around this theme. They claim that their existing high-performance jet-powered unmanned aerial drones are the highest performance UAVs, and now they want to build some that will fly alongside a fighter jet to provide support:
The drone you see above is the XQ-222, and it’s expected to fly this year alongside manned jets. The concept is referred to as “loyal wingman,” and like a good wingman at a packed club, the robo-jet will shoot down enemy fighters, run interference for the crewed airplane as it carries out an attack, or suppress and destroy enemy air defenses before the crewed plane enters range. It doesn’t need an airfield to launch from, as it goes up via rocket – travels 3,000 miles – and then down via parachute. Kratos is also developing a similar “robo jet” called the UTAP-22 which flies in swarms, one of which was already spotted flying alongside a Harrier this year. Here’s how much runway a Harrier needs.
The first question you might be asking here yourself is, why do we need artillery when we have bombers and cruise missiles? Isn’t the idea of using artillery for warfare rather antiquated? Turns out that artillery still serves a purpose given the bang you get for the buck. Here’s a great piece of prose from The Havok Journal on why artillery is still being used – and if any of you lads ever want to write about technology, just give us a shout:
They’re relatively easy to repair when they break. Their crews also don’t require months or years of highly specialized training. All they need is a few weeks of school, some experienced officers and NCOs to show them the ropes, some extraordinarily filthy pornography, and they’re good to go.
And, unlike aircraft, they can sit in one place for more than a few hours without crashing into the ground. You can park a firing battery in the middle of nowhere, bring them in food and ammo on occasion, and they’re perfectly happy. Well, not happy happy, since no redleg worth the name is ever truly happy unless they’re dropping 155 millimeters of freedom on some poor bastard’s head, but keeping them pissed off just means they’ll kill more bad guys. (Read full story here)
That’s why artillery is still being used, and many solutions like the DONAR seen below that can operate without needing much of a crew except for a driver and a commander:
It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think that the same autonomous technology the U.S. military is developing for tanks could be used to make the above vehicle fully autonomous as well, or any artillery vehicle for that matter. Slap a smaller gun on that platform and now you’ve got a nimble scouting vehicle. God’s chosen people have this down pat.
Autonomous Scouting Vehicles
When you have borders to protect, you can build walls or you can deploy technology to solve the problem. The Israeli’s have adopted a little of both methods. Since 2008, fully autonomous vehicles known as Guardiums have been patrolling Israel’s border and calling in the troops when something suspicious is spotted. Here a closer look at these high-tech robotics scouts:
It gets so much better than that though. An Israeli defense electronics company called Elbit Systems (ESLT) has developed a remotely controlled unmanned vehicle, Drakonit, that can fire on enemy positions from almost a mile away. These will soon be used for patrol missions or to secure borders and will soon be fully autonomous. Not to be outdone, the U.S. military is also working on their own version of a robotic scouting vehicle using the Humvee platform.
According to another great article by Popular Mechanics, this concept will also work using a “wingman” approach, where an autonomous Humvee will accompany an occupied Humvee with the two working in unison to seek out the enemy. Once you know where the enemy is, it’s time to send in the killer robot soldiers.
Killer Robot Soldiers
“The Pentagon Wants to Buy Thousands of Battlefield Robots” was the title of an anti-climactic article by Futurism which went on to say that these robots would be small devices that soldiers could carry with them and disperse as needed to look around corners, examine IEDs, or use for target practice when bored. The same article goes on to say that the Europeans have asked for a global ban on “killer robots” but the U.S. and Russia oppose such a ban claiming that it’s too difficult to define what a “killer robot” is.
A mid-size drone with explosives, computer vision, and a motion detector ought to be lethal enough to be considered a “killer robot,” and this year we saw the first assassination attempt being carried out with a drone. The U.S. has been using drones to bomb brown people for years now, so it shouldn’t be stretch to think that this might be one of those small devices that a soldier carries around and deploys to dislodge stubborn enemy placements. Just watch some of those BGM-71 TOW videos on Youtube of the Syrians blowing each other up and you might be a little less threatened by the idea of a buzzing drone coming at you.
We initially started writing this piece around the idea of bi-pedal robots running around shooting at things and quickly found out that the reality is that tomorrow’s military robot will take all shapes and sizes. We easily blew past our 1,800-word limit on this article because all our alpha male MBAs just find this stuff to be beyond cool – except for the whole killing thing of course – which is precisely why we need more military robots. In the majority of cases, it looks like military robots will take the form of autonomous or semi-autonomous versions of existing military equipment.
In a Senate hearing this year, according to the AP, Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley warned that China and Russia “are investing heavily and very quickly” in air, sea, and ground bots. He went on to say that within the next 10-15 years, robots will play a significant role in combat. From an investor’s perspective, this means increased military expenditures and could possibly play out positively for defense stocks like Kratos. It also means that robotics technology will be developed at an accelerated pace as countries around the globe deem this as a matter of “national strategic importance.” Then, it’s all going to come down to the winner being the country that wins the global AI race.
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