Robots at War

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Robots at War

The U.S. military’s successful deployment of drones in combat provides a glimpse into the future of warfare.  Without putting any U.S. pilots in danger, drones can deliver precisely targeted, highly lethal strikes on enemy personnel. 

A drone is an example of a semi-autonomous weapon system; the command to fire the drone’s weapons is made by a human on a military base in the U.S.  The U.S. also uses semi-autonomous weapons to launch Patriot missiles in its air defense systems that guard the coasts against enemy missiles and airplanes, and on board Navy ships.

Another example of a semi-autonomous weapon system already in use is the Samsung SGR-A1 Sentry robot that South Korea uses to guard its border with North Korea.  It is equipped with heat and motion sensors to detect activity up to two miles away.  According to the U.K.’s Daily Mail, each Sentry can fire a 5.5mm machine gun and a 40mm grenade launcher.  When it identifies a potential attacker, it alerts the command center, where a human operator can use its audio function to issue a warning or give the command to fire its weapons.1

These weapons are just the first generation of a new arsenal of powerful machines that will at first work side by side with soldiers, and eventually replace them.  Many of the projects remain classified, but the U.S. military and defense contractors—as well as the governments of U.S. allies and potential enemies—have revealed prototypes of several robots that can be used for surveillance, support, search and rescue, bomb detonation, and combat. 

While some of these new weapons are semi- autonomous, others are fully autonomous—meaning they can respond to a threat without waiting for a human to make a decision.  The Department of Defense defines an autonomous weapon system as “…a weapon system that once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator.”

While the U.S. is the undisputed leader in military robotics technology, Russia and China are now in the race.  Let’s take a look at the next generation of military robots and tactics:2, 3

  • On land, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has revealed two applications for using autonomous weapons in urban combat environments.  As explained by Stuart Russell, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, “The Fast Lightweight Autonomy program will see tiny rotorcraft maneuver unaided at high speed in urban areas and inside buildings.  The Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment program plans to create teams of autonomous aerial vehicles that could carry out every step of a strike mission in situations where enemy jamming makes communication with a human commander impossible...

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