Military Robotics History

The concept of military robotics is somewhat imprecise. Technically, it encompasses both UAV and AMR land-based crawling systems.

As we move further up the autonomous food chain, for some, the word “robot” applies to UAVs and AMRs with human operators who are watching local conditions through cameras and taking at least some part in the operations. And when it comes to UAVs there are multiple degrees of automation in that level of robotic autonomy. More rudimentary UAVs are completely person-flown. Newer models autonomously handle many of the navigational details using artificial intelligence, leaving the more complex maneuvering and final weapons engagement to off-site operators.

Other observers take a more literal, science fiction-like perspective to robot UAVs and AMRs, envisioning if not storm troopers, then AMRs and UAVs that not only maneuver to, around, and over the battlefield but make the lethal fire/not fire decisions on their own based on AI programs and machine learning.

Apparently, long-range military planners are not convinced we always need a human in the loop.

State of the Art is In Ukraine

The first military flying drones were essentially remote-controlled small planes, developed just prior to World War 2. It would be another 60 years before they were weaponized as the U.S. armed Predator drones with Hellfire missiles were used in the Middle East after 9/11.

With their relatively low cost, today’s simpler UAVs have been described as the offspring of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used in wars just a decade ago. They became the weapon of choice for many small countries, and they have made a big difference, often in local conflicts that many of us aren’t even aware of. Their value lies in their lethality and their propaganda effect.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, lethal unmanned AMRs have already been used in the early stages of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. These looked like miniature tanks (many of them were improvised) and were controlled by handlers similar to how UAVs are managed.

Going Full Autonomous

What about robot weapons of the most Star Wars kind – those that are fully empowered to seek and destroy, operating independently? The United Nations recently debated the issue of banning these weapons and putting them in the same category as land mines and booby traps. However, they failed to reach a consensus.

The feasibility of these weapons isn’t in doubt. It’s just a question of how well they can do their job and who’s accountable for a disastrous mechanical malfunction or an imperfect AI targeting algorithm. After all, battlefields are messy and they often extend into cities where civilians are present.

There are reports, in fact, that these autonomous flying “killer robots,” technically known as “lethal autonomous weapons systems,” may have already been utilized on more than one battlefield – in 2021 in Libya and earlier this year by the Russian military in Ukraine. In both cases, it wasn’t fully confirmed that the UAVs were operating in a fully autonomous mode, but they had the capability of doing exactly that.

The Future of Robotic Warfare

The genie is out of the bottle, and I don’t think we’re likely to remove or prevent the use of autonomous “killer robots” from future battlefields. Ironically, the major powers will probably be the least likely to use them against each other.

The United Nations will continue to try to outlaw autonomous killer robots, and they may ultimately succeed thanks to the endorsement of major countries. But outlaw nations will use them regardless of whoever signed the latest peace treaty.

The Turkish version of the autonomous UAV sold to armed forces in Libya, the Russian version used in Ukraine, and others will be available in the underworld arms markets relatively cheap. They’ll be snapped up by rogue dictators and generals who will use them against their adversaries, internally or externally, in second and third-level conflicts where there are few neutral observers. The citizens and soldiers of these nations will increasingly be victims of this autonomous, deadly technology.

In the meantime, the major countries will continue to improve the lethality and capabilities of their UAVs and AMRs. These weapons will have greater and greater autonomous capability, to the point where a flip of the switch would make them fully autonomous. Nations will need to have this capability in order to maintain an uneasy deterrent status quo, similar to the nuclear deterrent philosophy.

And just a final thought to keep us humbled and remind us of the stakes of a major war, this quote from Albert Einstein seems appropriate for our time:

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”



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