Armor: China Seeks Robotic Primacy


April 24, 2018: A Chinese state owned TV network recently broadcast a video of a soldier operating a T-59 (clone of Russian T-55) tank remotely. These autonomous/remotely controlled large (over a ton) UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles) are being developed worldwide. This is nothing unique as China has had armored vehicles operating autonomously since 1t least 2013 and has been energetically applying that technology to self-driving commercial vehicles. These are being tested on public roads with the objective of wide-scale use.

What China is also doing is developing self-driving routines for combat vehicles, so that one tank with a human crew could control a large number of tanks operated by “combat AI (Artificial Intelligence)” software. There are many other possible applications and China intends to be first in this field. To that end in 2016, the Chinese military conducted a competition between commercial, military and academic autonomous vehicle designers to see who had the most impressive designs (and win a prize.) What was different about the recent news item was the Chinese military planning to add more AI (Artificial Intelligence) to self-driving armored vehicles so they could fight autonomously. The demonstration of the s0ldier operating the T-59 remotely is a feature of any such autonomous combat vehicle where a commander of a unit (4-10) of these vehicles to take control of one of them for any number of reasons. China is known to be making much progress in AI but has not released a lot of details of how this would be applied to autonomous vehicles.

Israel has been a leader in this field for years and applied the tech to vehicles offered for export. China saw Israel as the most formidable competitor in this field and has followed Israeli developments closely. This was especially the case with military and security UGVs. In mid-2016 China was particularly interested when an Israeli firm introduced yet another in a long-line of Israeli developed UGVs. This one was called RoBattle and it is a seven ton vehicle that can carry up to three tons of sensors, weapons and other accessories (like robotic arms). RoBattle is a 6x6 vehicle with independent suspension so that it can move off-road with nearly as much agility as a tracked vehicle. RoBattle is designed to be equipped with numerous combinations of accessories designed to be quickly added or removed. Like earlier UGVs RoBattle can patrol roads or cross-country or remain unattended for up to twelve hours at a time in sentinel or ambush mode. RoBattle takes advantage of the development of better vehicle navigation sensors that enables it to not only move autonomously on roads but also off-road. Obstacles are automatically avoided or a human operator is alerted to intervene remotely for unusual situations (like an obstacle difficult to get over or around or being fired on).

RoBattle is not revolutionary, but evolutionary. You could see it coming since the late 1990s. Because of that, in 2006 an Israeli firm produced a robotic vehicle based on the two seater all-terrain "TomCar." Called AvantGuard, the robotic vehicle used sensors and software that enabled it to patrol along planned routes, and was capable of some cross country operation as well. The designers knew that improved sensors, software and computers would improve capabilities. The AvantGuard mounted a remote controlled gun turret equipped with a 7.62mm machine-gun. The vehicle had digital cameras facing every direction and used pattern recognition to identify potential threats (like people sneaking around where they are not supposed to be), or obstacles on the road. The idea was that a pair of human operators could control a dozen or more AvantGuard vehicles. This system was particularly effective at night because it had night vision and moved quietly. Weighing only 1.3 tons, the AvantGuard was protected against rifle fire and fragments from shells and smaller roadside bombs. AvantGuard proved adequate for guarding industrial parks, but not the vast stretches of Negev desert, along the border with Gaza. Too many things could go wrong out in the desert (obstacles in the road, hostile action) that AvantGuard could not handle.

All this goes back to the late 1990s when the U.S. Department of Defense began developing the four wheeled, 1.6 ton MDARS (Mobile Detection Assessment and Response System) robotic vehicles for guard duty. Israeli firms were working along the same lines but MDARS was one of the first of these vehicles to get a lot of publicity. With a top speed of 32 kilometers an hour and able to operate 16 hours without refueling, the vehicle contained radar (LIDAR) and 3-D visual sensors that enable it to avoid obstacles and identify whatever it encounters. One MDARS vehicle costing about $800,000 (depending on sensors installed) could do the work at half the cost of previous, non-mobile security systems. MDARS sensors and software could identify a variety of local animals (usually coyotes, deer or dogs) and birds it is likely to encounter within a rural facility. When it detected an unauthorized human, it alerted its human controller, who checked the real-time video feed and takes action as needed. After a decade or so MDARS sensors were able to identify individuals 200 meters away. MDARS is unarmed, although it could easily be equipped with weapons. In the U.S. potential legal, media and political problems discourage this. But there’s much less opposition to unarmed vehicles. As sensors and autonomous driving technology keep improving so does the effectiveness, value and acceptability of these vehicles. MDARS is part of a trend. Since 2001 the U.S. Army has bought thousands of UGVs but most of these were really more similar to radio controlled cars and trucks which have been sold as toys for decades. Indeed, when the troops were short of army issued robots they filled the gap with many of the larger radio controlled toy trucks. Efforts to create UGVs that can operate more independently has moved along very slowly. MDARS was in development for most of the 1990s and only began to actually perform guard duties effectively in 2004. MDARS was not alone and other nations have developed similar vehicles. In particular, Israel has been working hard trying to get an autonomous battle droid into action.

Israel wanted to use MDARS type vehicles in combat zones and that is what eventually produced RoBattle. Some existing weapons are easy to install in RoBattle. The best fit would be a RWS (Remote Weapon Systems) turret. These devices allow an operator inside the vehicle to control the gun and its sensors. The human operator can be augmented or replaced by software. The RWS was a very popular weapon with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. After 2001 the U.S. bought over 10,000 RWS and upgraded thousands later as new features were developed. There have been constant upgrades to American RWS turrets. For example, there was the addition of a green laser, which can temporarily blind people. Such lasers have long been used to stop drivers who keep coming at checkpoints despite other signals to stop. Used in an RWS, it enables the RWS operator to flash suspicious people with the blinding light, rather than opening up with the weapon. Another upgrade was an IR Pointer, which, at night, enabled the RWS operator to put a light, visible only to those using night-vision equipment, on something suspicious or otherwise important. Larger RWS models have also been equipped with a Javelin missile launcher. The RWS was always seen as a key element in the development of remotely controlled, or autonomous, armored vehicles. Since 2001 main RWS supplier for the U.S. Army was the Norwegian firm Kongsberg.

MDARS and AvantGuard were followed in 2008 by Guardium, which built on AvantGuard tech and used the same TomCar vehicle with a remote control turret. Guardium has better sensors and software. Guardium was pitched as "smart" enough to be used in urban areas and to serve as an emergency response vehicle. That is, these would be stationed along isolated stretches of the border, ready to drive off to deal with any terrorists who had gotten through the fence. The Guardium would thus arrive before a human quick reaction team, which would be stationed farther away.

Other nations have been developing their own armed UGVs. In 2014 Russia joined the United States and Israel and began using robotic vehicles to help guard five ballistic missile bases. Before that several Russian manufacturers were offering small remotely controlled or autonomous robotic vehicles for dealing with bombs or patrolling hazardous areas and detecting radiation. These were found useful by police and military bomb disposal teams, especially when providing security around Cold War era sites that were contaminated by high radiation levels. The most widely known one in the west is Chernobyl but there are several others that were never publicized and some that were actual secrets outside Russia until the Cold War ended. Thus Russia had a major incentive to design and build devices competitive with those produced in the United States, Israel, South Korea and a few other countries. Chinese manufacturers have been offering UGVs to compete with the Israeli models, which have the advantage of being “combat proven” because of their use to patrol volatile borders (like Gaza). China has another advantage in that they will sell advanced military tech to just about anyone who can pay, if only to get the stuff some combat experience. China plays the long game and sees the point where their latest UGV tech is kept at home as being close, but still a decade or more away.




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