Robots Are Here

AI is equipping ground-based autonomous systems with lethal capabilities

Smruti D

As technological shift happens in different sectors, the focus for long has been on replacing the humans with machines. Different manufacturing industries have already taken the leap with autonomous or semi-autonomous machines being used to perform human-intensive tasks.

Rheinmetall’s Mission Master, a multi-purpose reconnaissance and surveillance vehicle

An estimate published by Oxford Economics in 2019 stated that 20 million human beings in the manufacturing sector stared at being replaced by robots in 2030. The report particularly flagged China as taking the lead in this area. Mentioning China’s shift towards overall automation, Oxford Economics reported that globally approximately 1.7 million manufacturing jobs have been lost to robots since 2000. In China alone, the figure stood at 5,50,000. The US and Europe accounted for 2,60,000 and 4,00,000 job replacements respectively. By 2030, it is predicted that China will have 14 million industrial robots.

Manufacturing sector, however, is not the only one which is seeing technological advancements. An area of growing concern is automation in the defence industry. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) is enabling the militaries to carry out tasks such as surveillance, weapons targeting, cyber and homeland security, logistics and transportation. It is expected that overtime offensive weapons would also become autonomous.

The use of AI, in contrast to application of human intelligence, would gather data faster coupled with efficiency. The employment of AI-empowered tools and machines reduces human engagement but is not entirely devoid of it. The working together of human and artificial intelligence helps forces in undertaking large-scale operations in a quick manner. They act as force multipliers and can be more lethal than manned machines, depending on the weapon systems that they are equipped with. Therefore, human involvement in autonomous systems is needed to ensure oversight.

Complete autonomy in drones continues to be debated as there is a belief that a machine’s autonomy may be too devastating as opposed to the ones that are controlled externally. In a research paper for Chatham House, titled ‘International Security Department and US and the Americas Programme’, M.L Cummings says that both, military and commercial robots will in the future incorporate ‘artificial intelligence’ that could make them capable of undertaking tasks and missions on their own. With the arms race on, countries vying for greater influence have started investing in military robotics. The US and China are leading in research and development of robotics that may be used in war. As per the data released by Statista in February 2021, the global spending in military robotics between 2000 and 2025 has increased steadily all over the world. In 2000, the amount stood at USD 2.4 billion. In 2015, it was USD 7.5 billion, and in 2025 it is expected to reach USD 16.5 billion.

Robotics as a domain has evolved over time. After automated and pre-programmed robots, now the time has come for Artificial Intelligence (AI)-infused robots. Talking about the evolution of robotics, FORCE editor, Pravin Sawhney says, “Robots have been around for a long time. They were automated and were required to carry out the same task repeatedly. In the industrial sector a lot of such robots were used. The main intention was that the repetitive work the humans were doing would be better performed by robots. The second stage came when they could be pre-programmed. And now we are in the third stage, where we are going into a specialized area called AI. This comes with sensors. You use sensors anywhere because they are cheap and smart. In the third and current stage, rather than being given a specific job, robots will be able to access information from the cloud. There will be number of sensors attached to the cloud. The robot too is attached to the cloud. Through the cloud, the robot becomes a part of a larger network with other robots. This concept is the latest within Robotics and is called Advanced Artificial Intelligence Robotics.”

Chennai-based Torus Robotics has developed an unmanned surveillance and IED detection vehicle for the Indian Army

Robotics is a deep field of study that talks about the types of robots and their functions. Thanks to sci-fi, a human mind tends to think of robots in just one form, which are the ones shaped like human figures. This type of a robot is known as ‘humanoid robot’. There are several other types based on their functioning. Apart from humanoid robots, there autonomous vehicles, space robots, industrial robots among others.

Fast advancing its dependence on robotics, China in August 2019 deployed robots for surveillance purposes. A Hindustan Times report stated that India’s northern neighbour had for the first time tested new weapons including ‘battlefield robots’ and frontline tanks on ‘snow-covered plateau’ in order to be ‘battle-ready for plateau warfare to the west of the country’. This happened a couple of months ahead of the India-China standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.

‘In preparation for potential plateau warfare, China recently used, for the first time, some of its most powerful weapons and equipment, including Type 99A main battle tanks and battlefield robots to a snow-covered plateau in combat exercises,’ national broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV) reported, as quoted by Hindustan Times. Significant international attention has been given to China’s development of AI.

Emerj, a US-based AI research and advisory company in a report titled, ‘Artificial Intelligence in the Chinese Military–Current Initiatives’ states that among all the AI military technology that China is currently investing in, autonomous vehicles have a preponderance. The report states that, ‘China also has autonomous vehicles its military uses… One of these is the Marine Lizard, which is not a UCAV, but an autonomous amphibious landing vehicle. According to the state-owned developer China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, it can “plot out its own route, swim to shore, avoid obstacles, and it can also be remotely controlled by an operator.” Given recent forays into expanding its territory in the South Pacific, the Marine Lizard may prove useful to their aims if it works as advertised.’

Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece Global Times in January 2021 reported the debut of People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) newly commissioned assault vehicle. This robot can be controlled by a remote control. The report stated that the robot is a ‘tank like unmanned ground vehicle that runs on caterpillar tracks, with reconnaissance devices install as its turret.’ Quoting a squad leader of one of the PLA brigades, Zhang Xuanming, the report said that, ‘The robot can replace soldiers in early infiltration missions. It comes with reconnaissance and positioning functions, and can spot and destroy small targets.’ End of 2020, China National Radio (CNR), reported that the country had developed numerous unmanned combat equipment including ‘a boat-sized amphibious platform sailing at a high-speed.’ It added that a ‘combat vehicle with a new design concept was also ready for delivery inspections.’

The development of such platforms shows China’s intention to build an eco-system which includes these new, tracked war-robots armed with weapon systems such as machine guns, night vision, missile loaders and camera sensors to attack without having to bring in manned machines. China’s National Defense Technology (NUDT) has developed ‘Desert Wolf’ series of unmanned ground vehicles that run on tracks. These vehicles are equipped with remotely controlled weapon stations, and are capable of transportation. The NUDT has also modified the Dongfeng Mengshi off-road assault vehicle into an unmanned variant. Sharp Claw-I and Sharp Claw-II are also killer robotic vehicles that China unveiled a few years back.

Jane’s defence magazine describes Sharp Claw-I as a tracked combat system and reconnaissance robot weighing 120kg and 70cm long, that has an operational range of about one km. ‘It can be carried in the cargo bay of the much larger Sharp Claw II UGV’, which is a 6×6 wheeled unmanned ground vehicle designed to execute combat reconnaissance, patrol, assault and transport duties. Mule-200 is another UGV that China has developed. It was displayed at Unmanned System Exhibition and Conference 2020 in Abu Dhabi in February. Mule-200 is a medium-sized, multipurpose tracked vehicle that can accompany infantry units and be used to transport supplies and ammunition, thanks to its armoured hull. It is equipped with firearms to provide fire support at close ranges. The gasoline-electrical hybrid engine can run at the speed of 50 kmph.

Globally, China and the US are competing against one another fiercely in the AI race. In one of its articles in 2019, TIME magazine wrote, ‘Part of the reluctance from major military powers over a ban stems from the extent artificial intelligence (AI) has affected their defense industries. In addition to the U.S. and China, these states also include the U.K., Australia, Israel, South Korea, and a few others. But it is China that has become the most formidable challenger in the AI competition against the American superpower.’ It added, ‘President Xi Jinping has called for the country to become a world leader in AI by 2030, and has placed military innovation firmly at the center of the program, encouraging the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to work with startups in the private sector, and with universities.’ With countries walking towards the ‘robotisation’ of their militaries and beginning to introduce autonomy of unmanned systems, the day for ‘killer robots’ to dominate the battlefield is fast approaching.

As different countries have invested huge resources in development of the UGVs, several of them have already been rolled out. Russia’s Uran-9 has been one of the most popular vehicles in this area. The Russian designation for the vehicle is Boevoy mobilniy razvedyvatelniy complex (BMRK), which translates as Combat Mobile Reconnaissance. Uran had been tested in ‘anti-terrorist operations’ in Syria. This vehicle was unveiled by the manufacturer, JSC 766 UPTK, during the Army-2016 International Military-Technical Forum held in Russia in September. The vehicle is designed to provide remote reconnaissance and fire-support to a variety of other tasks. The robot is developed to improve the combat-effectiveness of the infantry squads.

The Uran-9 system consists of four unmanned ground vehicles, a tractor for transportation of robots and one mobile command station. The vehicle is 5.12-metre long, 2.53-metre wide and 2.5-metre high. It weighs approximately 10,000kg. The robotic system is fitted with ‘remotely operated turret for mounting different light and medium-calibre weapons and missiles, based on mission needs. It has four 9M120-1 Ataka anti-tank guided missile launchers. The missile offers a firing range of 0.4 km to 6km, and is capable of penetrating armour to a depth of 800mm behind explosive reactive armour (ERA).’

In 2017, BAE Systems unveiled Ironclad UGV at the DSEi show in London. According to the BAE Systems’ website: ‘Ironclad is small enough to negotiate tight urban environments, but maintains the mobility needed to handle extreme cross-country terrain. It can also be fitted to carry out reconnaissance, combat and casualty evacuation roles.’ The vehicle seeks to give forces the benefit of imaging and audio streamed directly back to soldiers carrying out reconnaissance; transport wounded soldiers from battlefield; and area denial.

Future programmes director, BAE Systems, Craig Fennel during the unveiling said, “Ironclad has a unique set of capabilities for a UGV. Using high endurance battery power, it offers near silent running up to a 50km range and will come with a set of mission systems that can be quickly changed in the field. A modular connection system allows two vehicles to be connected together to handle additional loads, such as a specialised stretcher. It is also protected against blast and small arms fire to increase mission survivability.” He added that the next step for Ironclad was to act autonomously as part of the battlegroup, interacting with other vehicles and ground troops to follow mission objectives. “There will always be a human in the loop, but increasing use of autonomy and unmanned vehicles means they can focus on key decisions and have more options to avoid putting people in dangerous situations,” he said.

The company, in 2019 unveiled Robotic Technology Demonstrator (RTD), ‘representing leap-ahead advancements for unmanned combat vehicles’. The RTD features autonomous mobility in order to keep soldiers out of harm’s way. A Hybrid Electric Drive for fuel efficiency, a 30mm remote weapons station, a suite of sensors for 360-degree situational awareness and surveillance, composite rubber track system, and a small legged robot for reconnaissance missions among other key new technologies make the RTD what it is.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Elbit Systems has also come up with a lightweight tactical UGV with high manoeuvrability for indoor and outdoor applications. The Micro Tactical Ground Vehicle (MTGR) is ‘designed to support military, law enforcement and security organisations. It is a handheld system that can be carried by an individual soldier.’ The robot’s external dimensions include length of 45.46cm, width of 36.83cm, and height of 14.47cm. It includes a platform with a 4-DOF manipulator, and ruggedised operator control unit 7 (ROCU-7) with touch-screen operator console and gamepad controllers. The system can perform tasks such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), public safety, special weapons and tactics (SWAT), chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives (CBRNE) and hazardous material (HAZMAT) missions.

PROBOT, which stands for Professional Robot, is another platform by Elbit Systems, designed as an autonomous, robust, lightweight tactical support vehicle with high mobility and off-road capability in urban and rural environments. The website states, ‘Equipped with a fully electric drive train and a particularly small thermal and acoustic signature, PROBOT can also transport heavy payloads. The UGV system is recommended for applications such as logistics, casevac and reconnaissance.’

General Dynamics Land Systems, US has come up with Multi-Utility Tactical Support (MUTT) UGV. The vehicle can provide persistence intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) and lethality to dismounted infantry units in any operational environment. The UGV can be easily configured to accommodate a variety of larger payloads and new controllers. It offers high levels of autonomy and low thermal and noise signatures. The MUTT unmanned ground vehicle features robust lightweight, low-cost design. It is available in 4×4, 6×6 and 8×8 chassis configurations based on both wheels and tracks.

BAE Systems’ Ironclad UGV can carry out reconnaissance, combat and casualty evacuation

Rheinmetall’s Mission Master, an Autonomous UGV (A-UGV) is equipped with intelligence-gathering technology and a Rheinmetall Fieldranger remote-controlled weapons station (RCWS). It is designed to collect tactical intelligence while also providing frontline fire support in the area of operation. The A-UGV has a payload of long-range EO/IR sensors, a surveillance radar, a 360-degree full ring camera, a laser rangefinder, and a laser designator to identify threats.

Milrem Robotics has THeMIS (Tracked Hybrid Unmanned Ground Vehicle), an armed drone vehicle, designed for military applications. TheMIS hybrid UGV performs different roles such as reconnaissance, observation, target acquisition, communications relay, logistics support platform, rescue, fire-fighting, and medical evacuation (medevac). The length and width of the vehicle are 2.1m each and the height is 0.98m. The UGV has a base kerb weight of 850kg and can carry payloads of 750kg.

Squad Mission Support System (SMSS) is an autonomous UGV by Lockheed Martin. It is the largest UGV deployed by the US armed forces. The SMSS is based on the six-wheeled amphibious ATV Land Tamer platform. The modular design allows the vehicle to be modified as transport, scout, mobile power and mobile communications platform. The SMSS sensor suite integrates Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR), infrared and a colour camera. The vehicle can lock-on and follow any person by identifying his 3D profile captured by the onboard sensors. The SMSS autonomously navigates through a pre-programmed route using GPS way-points. The SMSS Block I vehicle can be controlled through supervised autonomy, voice, tele-operation or by manually driven modes. The operator control unit includes a computer, control/ display unit, batteries and antenna. The unit can be carried in the standard modular lightweight load-carrying equipment (MOLLE) system.

India, currently is in nascent stages of development of robots. In February 2021, a Chennai-based start-up developed AI-infused UGV for the army. The vehicle developed by Torus Robotics Pvt Ltd can be used for logistics and surveillance at extreme weather and terrain conditions. It has tied up with the state-owned BEML for joint development of the said technology. The start-up told an Indian daily that the production for these vehicles would begin by 2023. The Indian armed forces are gradually moving towards inducting ground-based unmanned vehicles. In 2019, the Indian Army unveiled the autonomous surveillance and weapons platform. The Indian Army already operates Daksh, which is a battery-operated, remote-controlled robot on wheels used primarily for bomb recovery. Himbot is another ROV that the Indian Army is testing but not much development has taken place.

Says Sawhney, “India does not have Artificial Intelligence. We are not yet in this game of Advanced AI Robotics. China is one of the lead players in this. India is still looking at pre-programmed robots.” As India braces to meet the threat from China, it is critical to invest in the right technologies and capabilities.




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