Infantry: Where Have All The Battle Droids Gone?

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August 14, 2009: U.S. Army commanders are glad to have UAVs, but now they want more vidcam equipped robots on the ground (UGVs, or unmanned ground vehicles). In the last eight years, the army went from having a few dozen UAVs, to operating several thousand. Most are five pound Ravens, which combat troops have been using to obtain unprecedented aerial reconnaissance support.

In those same eight years, the army also added thousands of UGVs, but these were really remotely controlled robots, very similar to radio controlled cars and trucks, 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. But efforts to create UGVs that can operate more independently have moved along very slowly. Actually, the Israelis are ahead of the United States in this department, and much can be learned by examining the Israeli experience, and their failure to get an autonomous battle droid into action.

It's not for want of trying. Three years ago, 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 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.

Last year, building on the AvantGuard technology, a new firm, G-Nius, produced the Guardium. Using the same TomCar vehicle, and remote control turret, the Guardium has better sensors and software. Guardium is 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 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.

Guardium was seen as preferable to an earlier proposal; placing remotely controlled turrets in isolated areas, along with security cameras. If you spot some bad guys, the remotely controlled weapon can be used. South Korea and Israel have developed their own remote control weapon systems (SGR-A1 and Samson Jr., respectively). The United States has several existing remote control turrets to choose from, and is concentrating more on the array of sensors, the eyes and ears of the weapons.

South Korea wanted to use the system on it DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) border with North Korea. Israel wants to use them on the border with Gaza, which is often just an open stretch of desert. The U.S. wanted to use the systems for base defense in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. What has made these systems possible has been digital video analysis software that can detect people without human intervention. When that happens, a system operator is alerted, who decides if the person is hostile, and worth firing on. None of these systems proved entirely successful in practice.

These systems are vulnerable to attack and interference, which are the main reasons for not using them. Unless the cameras, and other sensors (sound, heat and seismic) can pick up hostiles far enough away, the remotely controlled weapon can be destroyed, along with many of the sensors, thus blinding the operators. But there's another advantage to such systems, the operators can be anywhere on the planet. Just as with Predators, which are operated by air force personnel in the United States, no matter where the UAV is, the same can be done with the remote control weapons (usually a 7.62mm or 12.7mm machine-gun). The Samson Jr turret mounts a 12.7mm machine-gun, with an effective range of about 1,500 meters. That means that one turret will be needed for every kilometer of border fence (to provide some overlap.)

Meanwhile, both the U.S. and Israel have developed smaller armed robots. The American systems is called Swords (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detecting System). This is a 125 pound remotely controlled vehicles (they look like miniature tanks), armed with a 5.56mm machine-guns and 350 rounds of ammo). Also known as Talon IIIB, the army spent over a year testing them in the United States before sending some to Iraq last year. There they found there were many ways to mess with Swords. Many tricks didn't even damage the equipment (like having a child or woman come out and throw a towel or sheet over it).

Israel has a similar system, called Viper, that carries a 9mm machine pistol (an Uzi) and can carry explosives, along with the usual video camera and microphones. Both Swords and Viper do have their uses, like entering very dangerous situations (like a cave or building believed occupied by fanatical gunmen). The droids can also be used for guard duty in dangerous locations (where the enemy might get a shot off, or toss a grenade.) But no matter what you have the battle robots do, the mechanical grunts lack the same degree of situational awareness of a human soldier. The sensors used on droids (mainly visual and acoustic) are getting better, as is the software that can quickly evaluate what the sensors see and hear. But humans can also smell, and feel (on their skin), as well as use superior vision and hearing. Until the sensors get better, the combat robots will always be at a disadvantage. But if used with those disadvantages kept in mind, the robots do have their uses.

Meanwhile, the generals, and the troops, can demand more useful UGVs all they want, but the technology just isn't there yet. Eventually. Progress is being made. But there still serious limitations.

 


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