When a robot soldier ‘dies’, you don’t have to write a letter to its mother. The US military is currently looking for robot specialists to build swarms of war drones that work together without the need to be individually controlled by pilots on the ground. It’s yet another milestone in the shift towards building the sorts of robot armies we’ve grown used to seeing in science fiction. So far, autonomous robots have played a minor role in warfare – with a limited number of drones carrying out aerial bombing in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as robots being used for bomb disposal and surveillance. However, defence agencies across the world are investing heavily in technology that can reduce bloodshed and automate acts of war, with one senior American officer saying he could replace a quarter of troops with robots and remote-controlled vehicles. There are also moves being made to develop cyborg soldiers – humans and animals augmented by technology. So what will the robot army of the future look like? Here are some of the breakthroughs.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working to develop advanced humanoid robots for years. One such robot is Atlas, a 6’2” machine that walks on two legs and is designed – at least for the time being – for disaster relief. It’s not hard to imagine swapping out Atlas’s arms for guns and turning him into a terrifying foot soldier.
AlphaDog is a four-legged horse/mule robot designed for military purposes to carry heavy loads of equipment. The sturdy machine can run across uneven and rocky terrain and it can also right itself very easily if it is pushed over or falls. It’s being tested by the US Army and could one day be used on the battlefield.
Bomb disposal is a highly-skilled and risky profession, so it makes complete sense to let a robot get up close and personal with the explosives, while the human commander can watch and give commands from afar. iRobot’s 710 Kobra is designed to detonate bombs from a safe distance, controlled via a touchscreen app.
Teeny tiny robots can creep into small spaces to spy on enemy lines and check for bombs. RHex is a small, sturdy six-legged robot with a camera that can climb over rocks, through mud and vegetation and up slopes. It has night vision cameras for stealth missions.
We’ve got the skies covered with drones, but what about the seas? The US Navy has been working on a swarm of robot boats that work together autonomously to overwhelm a target. The boats are designed to follow a bigger boat like a pack of guard dogs and then attack on command using weapons if necessary.
Along border between North and South Korea are dotted weaponised robot sentries that are alert 24 hours per day. It can detect intruders using machine vision and fire at targets three miles away. The system requires no human presence.
DARPA is exploring the idea of creating an airborne mothership that could launch and recover multiple small drones. The sky-based aircraft carrier would be useful for releasing surveillance and killing missions without putting pilots at risk.
Instead of replacing humans with robots, why not augment humans with wearable computers, helmet visors with a heads-up display and night vision as well as robotic exoskeletons for super-human strength. A number of neuroscience techniques are also being tested to improve alertness and allow for mind-controlled weapons.