Paramilitary: China Replaces Soldiers With Droids


May 26, 2016: A Chinese firm has designed and are offering for sale a new security robot. Called Anbot, it joins dozens of earlier, similar designs and apparently tries to learn from and improve earlier efforts. Anbot weighs 78 kg (172 pounds) is cylindrical and 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) high. It can operate eight hours on its internal batteries and automatically use a recharging station if it is available. Anbot can be programmed easily to patrol a specific area and has software which enables it to automatically respond to a wide range of situations. This includes being cut off from a human operator (that is normally used to decide what to do if the video and sound sensors on Anbot detect something requiring the attention of human operator). Anbot can be equipped with a weapon or, rather, non-lethal devices (like a Taser) to deal with unruly people or animals. Anbot is also equipped with two-way video and audio communication via a remote operator and someone near Anbot. Using three wheels to get around, Anbot can move up to 18 kilometers an hour (five meters a second, faster than most people can run) but is not very useful unless it is on a flat surface (preferably an indoor floor). What makes Anbot unique is that it is designed to deal with people, mainly to observe and communicate with. Devices like Anbot free a lot of soldiers from security duties and have growing more capable and popular since the 1990s.

Earlier robot designs demonstrate the steady improvements in capabilities. For example in 2014 Russia 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 actually 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.

In 2011 an American nuclear materials storage site out in the Nevada desert began using robotic vehicles to help with security. Since then many military bases and government facilities have received similar equipment and the practice spread to other countries. These vehicles are increasingly found in commercial facilities as well. Slowly, but inevitably, mobile robots (UGVs, or unmanned ground vehicles) are taking over guard duty. This is the market the new Chinese Anbot is getting into.

All this goes back to the late 1990s when the U.S. Department of Defense began using the four wheeled, 1.6 ton MDARS robotic vehicles. With a top speed of 32 kilometers an hour and able to operate 16 hours without refueling, the vehicle contains 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) can do the work at half the cost of previous, non-mobile security systems. MDARS sensors and software can identify a variety of local animals (usually coyotes, deer or dogs) and birds it is likely to encounter within a rural facility. When it detects an unauthorized human, it alerts its human controller, who checks 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 keeps improving so does the effectiveness, value and acceptability of these vehicles. MDARS is part of a trend. Since September 11, 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.

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 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.

In 2008, building on the AvantGuard technology, a new firm, G-Nius, produced the Guardium. Using the same TomCar vehicle, and a remote control turret, the 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 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) and both countries did install some of these turrets and still use them.

South Korea wanted to use the system on its 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 but the stationary turrets did.

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. But in the end, the remotely controlled turrets were used anyway, in addition to a few Guardium vehicles. However, the Israeli Army was encouraged, and invested in an upgraded UGV called Nahshon. However, 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. Russia mentioned that its new security vehicles can also use weapons and these are probably similar to systems found in the U.S., Israel and South Korea. The trend in these robotic security droids is to make their sensors more efficient and the droids capable of patrolling inside or outside without human assistance and only calling the human supervisor if something suspicious or threatening is spotted.


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