Remotely controlled canine is one of dozens of automated systems – from robots to drones – unveiled at annual exhibition in Las Vegas
When live ammo guns as small as a stick, remote-controlled sniffer dogs and giant 10-foot-tall drones are among the things unveiled at an annual trade show for the American military it’s fair to say that we’re at a moment in time where autonomous robotic technology has become a third pillar of warfare.
At the annual Association of the United States Army (AUSA) show in Las Vegas, veterans and civilians alike looked at a wave of unmanned robot systems developed by defense industry giants such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. And there were several puppies.
A 10-foot-tall robot that can scan the city and search for terrorists. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
And two border patrol robots, some with lights that can illuminate human patrols in dark locales, such as gathering a blizzard of drone footage when terrain couldn’t, for instance, be seen from high enough.
Nearly 100 companies in attendance showed their off their most advanced products.
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But the automated devices being shown off here also are easily visible as giants compared to the small hand-held gadgets that service members and veterans actually use on the battlefield. This year, roughly 235 artificial intelligence, robotics and unmanned systems are ready for deployment on the ground or air, according to a list of systems from the DoD.
The robots, systems and drones are a growing subset of weapons systems aimed at using technology to achieve military objectives without human discretion or injury to humans or non-combatants. This “remotely piloted systems” – RPS, as the military prefers to call it – is also projected to be a $10bn industry by 2023, up from roughly $3.5bn in 2015.
“Today we talk about autonomous systems. Tomorrow you talk about robots and autonomy,” said Peter Huessy, vice president of unmanned systems at Northrop Grumman.
Within the unmanned systems area there’s nothing necessarily that’s programmed, no machine routines and no autonomous programming. Rather, they are concepts developed by human and software engineers seeking to offer a more flexible model for tracking the enemy and deciding how to deploy robotic weapons.
Northrop Grumman’s newest drone, a Reaper RQ-4B, has a radar that can spot moving targets and, the company says, “provides the pilots” with “real-time visuals and options for the approach of targets to prevent unintended collateral damage”.
Admission into AUSA has come with a string of visa restrictions. Photograph: Christopher Robin/iStockphoto
It was this recent capability that prompted Eric Wong, the director of the Army War College’s joint, unmanned and cyber warfare group, to compare an unmanned drone system to a pool of garden tools when he interviewed the service members who fly the drones. “As long as the tools stay safe from human error, the machine is quite nice as a tool and it’s really a very good first vehicle for these types of instruments,” he said.
One of the biggest robotics news days featured the first full robotic combat demonstration at the public show. The Israeli military invited in journalists to its booth to witness the capabilities of its machine tanks, produced in conjunction with defense giant Israel Aerospace Industries.
The exhibit not only featured unmanned tanks but demonstrated a range of remotely controlled systems from its Revolutionary Tank Board and Net First Armored Fighting Vehicle to Israeli army and police SWAT robots.
The machines in the exhibit aren’t but a small sample of the large of machines currently in development. Last December a US Marine Corps report showed as many as 14 types of robots planned for deployment by 2020, ranging from electronic surveillance to combat support and medical care. In a number of ways, these machines are already a significant part of military strategy, such as a “Cyber Barrage” system that would move 30-50 drones through Syria and Iraq en masse.
Now, with the advantage of technology these machines are appearing more often, often paired with lethal force, raising serious questions about the ethical use of technology.