Military mulls letting robots take the point

The Army’s chief roboticist wants robots to take the front lines to serve as “bullet catchers” to protect soldiers. But should they also fire back?

Throughout history, warfighting has been affected by available technology. The famed British Army of the 18th century, for example, fought in line formation with soldiers firing their single-shot musket before filing to the back to reload and being replaced by the next line of soldiers. Advancements in semi-automatic weapons significantly altered this seemingly suicidal warfighting strategy. Emerging technologies in the 21st century are also changing the landscape, especially with regard to unmanned systems. Next up could be putting robots on the front lines to protect soldiers.

“We should be thinking about having a robotic vanguard, particularly for maneuver formations,” said Dr. Bob Sadowski, the Army’s chief roboticist. “There's no reason why the first contact with an enemy force should be with a man-platform, because it means that platform is at the greatest risk.”

Speaking at a recent robotics conference hosted by the Army’s Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center, Sadowski suggested that robots, which feel no pain, should be “bullet catchers.” In the process, he said, they could also pinpoint and uncover enemy fire locations.

One example would be driverless convoys, a concept that has been demonstrated by the Army and Marines, which could save lives that might otherwise be lost to roadside improvised explosive devices. The tradeoff here, however, could be losing the ability to fire back in order to protect the convoy from enemy attacks. “[Y]ou'd need to consider arming the autonomous vehicles, with a soldier being the remote triggerman,” Sadowski said.     

Unmanned robots are already having unprecedented effects on the battlefield. Unmanned aerial vehicles have provided an unblinking eye in the way of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that manned aircraft simply cannot. Additionally, the dual ISR-strike capability of some of these platforms is lauded by military officials for their efficiency, although the practice has been criticized for making decisions of war easier given the negligible risk to personnel. Those types of questions also could arise for autonomous convoys or other robots in the field.

“To the extent that this technology makes it cheaper and easier to engage in the covert use of cross border targeted strikes, maybe you don’t hesitate as much, you have a lower threshold for using force,” Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks said at a Feb. 23 event hosted by the Stimson Center http://www.stimson.org/content/grading-progress-us-drone-policy regarding military decision-making in the use of drones and force. “If you’ve got this technology that enables you to [use force] in a way that at least has the illusion of being risk-free in the short term—is risk-free to our personnel—maybe you don’t think as hard about it, maybe it gets a little bit easier to do it and do it again and do it again without as much thought.” 

The use of force outside of so-called hot battlefields can be achieved with a variety of tools, including manned aircraft or even raids, but “the existence of unmanned aerial vehicles, that availability of that technology makes it easier but the issues, I think, fundamentally for the most part would be exactly the same if we were talking about different technologies,” Brooks said. “In the future we’re going to see more kinds of emerging technologies that enable the covert use of force outside of traditional battlefields.”

Autonomous systems have also created quite the stir. “There are ethical implications. There are implications that I call the ‘Terminator conundrum’,” Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Paul Selva said earlier this year, regarding artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. “What happens when that thing can inflict mortal harm and is empowered by artificial intelligence? How are we going to deal with that? How do we know with certainty what it’s going to do? Those are the problem sets I think we’re going to deal with in the technology sector.” 

Providing a preview of what’s in the pipeline, Sadowski pointed to autonomous helicopters designed by Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky to deliver supplies to forward operators and a forthcoming experiment in which an operator will remotely guide a robot through the Australian outback with a second of latency from control to action using satellites. A mule-like device has also been tested to accompany Marines and carry equipment, although, for now at least, the Marines have decided it is too loud to be effective in the field.

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