MARCH 2012: Arecent newspaper headline blared: “Humans lose, robots win in Pentagon’s new defence budget.” The story was about US president Obama’s decision to downsize the army by 100,000 soldiers in a move towards forming a lean but technologically-advanced army. He means to invest in electronic weapons to jam enemy defences and attack online networks, elite commando forces like the ones who rescued two aid workers kidnapped in Somalia, and more than 65 Predator and Reaper combat air patrols.
Predator, Reaper, LandShark, Armadillo, Snakebot… countries all over the world are going in for robot-helpers for their military forces. According to an ABI Research report released last year, around 50 to 80 countries are already using robotic defence systems, or are in the process of building or acquiring the technology to incorporate these into their military programmes.
These robots with the common purpose to replace or supplement humans in battlefields, may take the form of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) and even unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). The report also predicts that the global market for military robotics will grow to more than $8 billion in 2016.
Soldiers and robots are indeed traversing warfronts side-by-side, and it appears that the trend is strengthening. We just hope they do not come face to face against each other some day, like Asimov’s bad dreams.
Marching ahead, unmanned
One of the main reasons for deploying robots on the warfront is to reduce injury and death of soldiers. This advantage obviously can be achieved only by unmanned robots. Several nations’ military forces have now started using unmanned vehicles for surveillance, detecting and detonating landmines and bombs, and traversing tough geographic and weather conditions. There are many such aerial, ground and underwater systems present today, but these are still a nascent technology and usually deployed in association with manned vehicles or human control.
“A perfect example of this is shown in the movie The Hurt Locker. The movie shows well how such robots are being used in defence. It is safe to say that both manned and unmanned vehicles are used in collaboration in the defence sector,” says Praveen Pitchai, who is working towards a masters degree in robotics at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also part of a team working on building a tele-operated/autonomous rover for a NASA competition.
Pitchai explains that there is a lot of work being done with regard to UAVs like the Predator, which is used by many countries for surveillance purpose. Last year, the US Air Force took into consideration the risks taken by soldiers during re-supply missions and started using an unmanned helicopter—K-MAX built by Lockheed Martin—in places like Afghanistan.
As far as ground robots are concerned, there is still a lot of work going on in this area. But for the purpose of defence, the robots are mainly used in a tele-operational capacity. This is because tele-operated robots are more easily con-trolled in missions like bomb diffusion.
“There certainly may be a time when unmanned vehicles rule the day, but not for a few decades to come as reliability is a prime concern and such technologies are still in their nascent stages of development,” says Pitchai.
T. Jayakrishnan, an experienced roboticist and consultant to US-based robotics companies, also agrees with the benefits of unmanned robotic systems. “Unmanned robots are particularly helpful for detecting hazards such as roadside bombs and chemical-biological threats. Using robots means that people can remain at a safe distance while they check a road or building for hazards,” he says.
Some of the unmanned robots that Jayakrishnan admires are Armadillo (a micro-UGV that can be thrown) and LandShark (a mid-size UGV). The latter features an open platform for multiple payloads (sensors, arm, digger, etc), tows 200 kg or lifts 70 kg with a heavy-lift arm, and can carry and drop-off/retrieve multiple micro-UGVs. Jayakrishnan also brings to notice the Oshkosh M-ATV, which is a manned or unmanned larger vehicle for rescue and cargo.
• Strong desire to reduce or prevent military casualties in the field of operations
• Changes in the tactics of warfare requiring new reconnaissance
• Combat, task machinery and tools
• The need to reduce military spending Developments in the fields of materials science, computer programming and sensing technology to help create more advanced robots
• Weak economic conditions
• Dearth of active military conflicts for most of the world, which reduces the need for new defence systems
• Ethical concerns involving the use of robots for war-fighting operations
—Adapted from an ABI Research report titled “Defense Robots: UAVs, UGVs, UUVs and
Task Robots for Military Applications”
Massachusetts-based iRobot Corp revealed pre-production prototypes of another small and light ground robot for military missions at the Consumer Electronics Show last year. The 110 FirstLook UGV provides hasty situational awareness, performs persistent observation and investigates confined spaces. It weighs less than 3 kg and is 25.4 cm (10 inches) long, making it ideal for building clearing, raids and other close-in scenarios.
The company believes that First-Look will be an important tool for war-fighters and first responders. The machine is equipped with four built-in cameras and two-way audio communication. It also has digital mesh networking capabilities, allowing multiple robots to relay radio communications over greater distances. The device uses a wrist-mounted, touch-screen operator control unit with an inbuilt radio.
iRobot, in fact, has a large range of products being used in war, including the 510 PackBot, small unmanned ground vehicle (SUGV), 710 Warrior and the Negotiator.
“SUGV is a tactile mobile robot that gathers situational awareness in dangerous conditions for war-fighters and public safety professionals. It is lightweight and can operate in a variety of conditions and weathers, as well as on rough terrain and in urban settings, hence commonly used for surveillance or reconnaissance, bomb disposal, explosive detection and inspections,” explains N.H. Shekhar, who is pursuing an MS in information science at the Northeastern University, Boston, US. Shekhar worked as a teaching assistant for the robotic science and systems course under Prof. Marsette Vona, helping to build around ten prototype robots with local and global mapping capabilities.
iRobot also has 1KA Seaglider UUV having a depth range of 50-1000 metres. It can measure temperature, salinity and other parameters, and send this data back to receiving units using global satellite telemetry. This tool is now being used by the US Navy, government agencies and other research organisations.
“The advantages and disadvantages of both manned and unmanned robots are very much related to the advancement in robotics, vision and artificial intelligence technologies. It may take one or two decades for robots to search, identify and track enemy forces and make decisions to call in and coordinate strikes from unmanned land vehicles, pilot-less aircrafts and underwater vehicles in a fully autonomous way. Until then, these systems would assist soldiers in warfare to lighten their loads, keep them better informed and perform strikes through remote operation,” says Jayakrishnan.
However, there is a new technology that takes a middle path—exoskeletons. Here, a human inside the robot combines the intelligence of the person with the strength of the exoskeleton. Raytheon’s Sarcos XOS exoskeleton arms and legs are one of the most well-known models for use in the military. The design weighs 68 kg and allows the wearer to lift 90 kg without any special effort. XOS 2 is a recent model featuring more fluid movement, increased power output and decreased power input.
Berkeley Bionics/Lockheed Martin HULC (human universal load carrier) legs are a key contender to XOS. The carrier weighs only 24 kg and allows the user to carry up to 91 kg on a backpack attached to the exoskeleton independent of the user.
Surveillance bots gaining popularity
Surveillance from a defence perspective mainly involves operating from a stable and reliable platform, camouflaging and information gathering with the help of sensors and vision systems.
Jayakrishnan explains that stealth or low-observable technology has been used for long for being invisible from radars. Apart from traditional camouflaging patterns, digital camouflaging techniques are also widely used to dress-up battlefield vehicles and equipment nowadays. New technologies such as adaptive camouflaging have been developed using nanotechnology. For UGVs, the vision system or smart codec can monitor an area for intruders and alert commanders when an event is detected.
Today, there are many advanced UGVs, UUVs and UAVs being used in surveillance platforms. Of late, drones are highly discussed in the news and have actually served to bring defence robotics into the limelight. The Stalker (a product of Lockheed Martin) is a stealthy aerial drone that was used by US Special Forces in Afghanistan. It weighs 6 kg, has a three-metre wingspan and is launched by hand. These drones are designed to be quiet with a ‘hush drive’ that combines a silenced electric motor and a special propeller. The Stalker is said to be inaudible beyond 80 metres and can fly at night with the help of infrared sensors and low-light cameras.
Larger autonomous aerial vehicles that can send data or images in real time to base stations are also used for surveillance. Elbit Systems’ latest large UAV offering Hermes 900 extends its predecessor Hermes 450’s performance to offer longer endurance, higher operational ceiling, larger payload capacity and all-weather functionality. Add to this a silent engine, innovative electronics and avionics, electro-optic systems, laser designators and sensor technology, 36-hour endurance, speed of 222.23 kmph (120 knots) and a payload capacity of 300 kg—what you have is a surveillance plus payload carrier machine.
“We have seen and heard of many robots designed and inspired by functionalities of the structures of many living organisms such as birds, fishes and reptiles. The Snakebot is one such robot used for surveillance. The 1.82-metre (six feet) Snakebot developed by Biorobotics and Biomechanics Lab of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology consists of polymer segments connected by flexible joints, and is powered by electric motors. Movement control relies on a software that determines the best mode of travel (wriggling, rolling or corkscrewing)for each situation. Snakebot can also rise up to climb stairs and other vertical obstacles. Even NASA is develop-ing Snakebots to explore space,” says Shekhar.
Harvard University’s 60-milligram robot with a three-centimetre wingspan and Festo’s SmartBird robot are other examples of nature-inspired surveillance bots.
Against all odds
“Robots in the defence sector are designed for harsh weather conditions and their performance is always compared with their human counterparts in such conditions. These don’t need life-support systems to survive harsh conditions and can go for long hours or days on single-mission deployment. Even if a robot is lost in action, another one can be sent. There is no need for a rescue operation, which in itself is a huge saving in the operating cost and precious lives,” says Fahad Azad, managing partner, RoboSoft Systems.
He Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) Daksh is a real proof of India’s technological prowess. Daksh robot is India’s first indigenously manufactured remotely-operated vehicle, which is capable of handling and disposing improvised explosive devices. After experimenting with around 20 units, the Indian army announced that it is procuring a hundred more units of Daksh for deploying in the army.
DRDO has also announced its plans to develop a robot soldier by 2020-30. “Whatever a soldier will do in warfare, a robot soldier should be able to do. That’s the plan,” said Dr V.K. Saraswat, scientific advisor to the defence minister and secretary of Defence R&D. The robot soldiers, controlled from remote locations, can do multiple tasks including fighting humans and carrying loads of ammunitions.
“We need to include a lot of artificial intelligence to avoid collision. Also, a lot of robot soldiers need to communicate with each other in the battlefield. Enormous amount of database and analytic intelligence is required for this,” Dr Saraswat said. DRDO, apparently, also has plans to replace mules with robots to carry heavy loads to places like Siachen.
That said, there appears to be a bit of a disappointment in the local robotics ecosystem as most of the defence budget apart from the DRDO projects is going abroad. “There is huge potential growth in this space but the government needs to start investing in local companies like Israel, the US, Russia or China do, rather than depending on other countries for technology support, as it has traditionally been. As of now, it appears that 70 per cent of the defence budget of India is outsourced to other countries. There needs to be a change in the government’s procuring process,” comments Azad
From this perspective, Azad appreciates the work of Boston Dynamics, especially their BigDog product. Imagine a huge dog with big strong legs carrying huge payloads and marching alongside soldiers as they cross mountainous or even dessert regions! One great feature of the BigDog is force-controlled technology. With its quadruped gait, the robot dog, or mule as some call it, can regain balance if it is kicked, handle rough terrain like rocks, and climb inclines up to 35 degrees.
Last year, the company revealed a bigger and more useful beast code named LS3 or BullDog. While the original BigDog could carry a payload of about 150 kg up to 20 km without having to refuel, the new model can carry 180 kg up to about 30 km. It is also quieter and can jump over obstacles, right itself after a fall and navigate with greater autonomy than its predecessor.
Despite the increasing physical capability and other benefits of robots, why are people still sceptical about their impending role in war? Is it simply because these are supposedly less intelligent than humans? While this is true to a large extent, the fact is that robots are slowly becoming more intelligent.
“The level of intelligence varies from robot to robot, depending on the mission the robot is used for. A robot must at least be able to operate autonomously to the extent that the soldier can concentrate on the task at hand. It should act as a tool to reduce his load and not as a burden and technology barrier. In general, robots need not be highly intelligent but have to be smart, simple to use and maintain,” opines Azad.
‘Intelligence’ in robotics is a very loosely-used term, but generally it revolves around the way a system responds to the feedback from the external environment and changes. Another challenge is the processing of data captured from various sensors used in the robot. In all cases, time in the order of milliseconds is of the highest priority, as lives depend on the response of these systems.
Nowadays, extremely complex software systems are being developed to improve the intelligence of robots. However, as far as military robots go, any such technology has to be tested time and again to prove its reliability before deployment because it is a matter of lives.
“Robots in defence, like the KMAX, surely have extremely high levels of intelligence. Their learning algorithms are extremely effective, using various machine learning techniques. Most of these techniques are based on probabilistic models developed. Intelligence, in essence, is the development of the ‘brain’ of the robot and there is vast ongoing research on this topic. There are various windows through which these problems can be approached, like neural networks and machine learning,” says Pitchai.
“Slowly but surely we are getting there as a robotics community, but there is a long way to go before we can actually call a system ‘intelligent.’ Most UAVs used in defence have some such capabilities, but to be actually used on a large scale the research and the results have to be rock solid, which will require many years of research,” explains Pitchai.
Jayakrishnan adds that while today’s robots are intelligent enough for surveillance, information gathering and even bomb detonation, these are still not capable of strategic decision-making.
Other interesting trends
“One ultimate robotic technology we see today is task-level robot control,” says Jayakrishnan. For example, state-of-the-art control software can be used to tell a robot to ‘grab an object’ rather than excercising cumbersome manual control throughout the task.
“This may sound easy, since even a young child can grab an object, but it has been very difficult to give a robot the right combination of visual understanding, intelligence and grasping control. Such advanced perception and grasping capabilities enable the handling and operation of any sophisticated battlefield equipment and system,” Jayakrishnan explains.
Another key development is use of robots to perform tele-surgery at the warfront under the control of expert surgeons operating from a distance. With haptic/force feedback devices and real-time visual information, the surgeons are virtually transported to the actual environment.
“There are many new ideas coming into play. Especially, in the areas of SWARM robotics, where robots can communicate with each other during warfare and help soldiers further. UAVs are vastly improving and with the advent of quadrotors these are further developing and improving,” adds Pitchai.
A quadrotor is a kind of multicopter propelled by four rotors. While this technology has been used in aircrafts since the early 1920s, of late it has found place in UAV technology.
University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Lab has developed quadrotors that can fly through windows and rings, hit balls, etc. They recently managed to get groups of the robots to fly together in a formation. As in the case of fighter jets, there is a leader robot in each squad along with several follower robots. The followers have just two jobs—follow the leader and preserve the shape of the formation. This might be very useful to develop robots trained in modern warfare tactics.
How stiff is the competition?
Robots are doing well in the military. There is no fear of death in the back of their minds. They are designed to handle bad weather and tough terrains, and can carry weight. But does this mean robots will one day replace soldiers in war? Certainly not!
Shekhar gives a spirited reply: “It’s been more than three decades since desktops revolutionised computing and other IT industries. The same question was asked before about whether computers would replace humans and whether we would just be sitting and watching them do everything. We still have our jobs and responsibilities, but in a better way. I do not believe that these machines can ever completely replace us as we are the soul of these machines.”
Machines can compute really fast but when it comes to taking critical decisions they need soul to help them. So these can get better, faster and more reliable only in the presence of humans. Similarly, in a warfield, robots need to take critical and real-time decisions most of the time and this can happen only under the guidance of a human present there. It is neither advisable nor practical to let these robots fight all by themselves as it is next to impossible to clone the beauty and intelligence of the human brain into these machines.”
The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai