Weapons: Robots Take Over the Danger Zone


June 8, 2007: Remotely controlled weapons have matured in the past decade. The two most obvious examples are the armed UAV (like the Predator) and the remote control weapons turrets found in Strykers and other armored vehicles. Both of these have befitted from advances in sensors, software, and several generations of young troops honing their eye-hand coordination on video games. This last item makes it easy for troops to use these new weapons.

Now South Korea, the United States and Israel are developing remotely controlled turrets integrated with security systems. Basically, this means placing a remotely controlled turret in some isolated area, that is observed by security cameras. If you spot some bad guys, the remotely controlled weapon can be used. The South Korea wants 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. wants 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.

These systems would be vulnerable to attack, which is the main reason for 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. But there's another advantage to such systems, the operators can be anywhere on the planet. Just as with Predaors, 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 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.

Humans have proven quite resourceful at getting past sensor systems. If you can't detect the enemy, your remotely controlled weapons will be useless. While the North Koreans probably won't risk an incident by probing the SGR-A1 based systems, the Israeli and American ones will get tested very quickly. The Israeli system may be in service within a year. 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.)

The United States, and other nations, are also developing armed robotic vehicles, which patrol flat areas, and alert human operators if a potential threat is encountered. As with the other systems discussed, a human has to pull the trigger. While, in theory, you could allow software to control the firing decision, that has not happened yet. Well, at least not for these machine-gun turrets. Navies have, for over twenty years, been using anti-missile systems (like the U.S. Phalanx) to defend their ships, and the firing order comes from the software, not a human. Same with some land based anti-missiles and anti-aircraft systems. This is because the reaction time is too short for a human, so software takes care of it once the system is switched on. This approach will eventually come to robotic machine-guns mounted on vehicles that find their own way around.




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