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Robot Roles in the USA Military

Warfare is an ever-evolving practice defined by international law and social norms. The art of war has consistently changed over time to accommodate improvements in technology, battlefield tactics, and modern worldviews.

Modern militaries have come to a crossroads, of sorts. Governments and their people have an increasing distaste for casualties, yet international accord is always at stake somewhere around the world. The demands for leaders to provide safety, security, and a sense of peace are at an all-time high.

The battlefield itself has morphed over time, as well. Gone are the days of lining up across large, open swaths of land to test the skill of marksmen and the bravery of soldiers marching toward each other with steely eyes. News clips on fighting often capture shots fired around buildings and in areas populated by civilians. This has forced new obligations on militaries to not only protect their own but those who might be caught in the crossfire.

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Technology plays a vital role in keeping some semblance of peace while avoiding endangering civilian lives for little gain. Innovative ideas in the military have allowed for new levels of efficiency, accuracy, and have minimized casualties significantly.

Robots have infiltrated almost every sector including industrial, retail, healthcare, and even coffee-making, as it can be seen with these Rozum robots. Robotics is also becoming a major component of most militaries. Robots can be found in many roles that replicate or replace combat positions previously held by humans. This has allowed militaries to reduce the toll on lives and improve the outcome of missions. The roles of robots in the military are diverse, useful, and highly beneficial to all stakeholders.

There are a variety of robots and AI systems being deployed by militaries today. Some are controlled remotely while others perform tasks on their own. Many are unarmed and perform missions deemed too dangerous or costly for human soldiers to take on. Robot technology has become so advanced, that the thought of a “robot army” is not so much a thing of science fiction as it is simply being held up by governmental decision-making.

Significant investments are being approved to advance robotics in the military. Estimates suggest that the industry featuring military robots has the potential to surpass $30 billion by 2022. Military leaders have insinuated that by 2030, robots will play a substantial enough role that brigade sizes will be noticeably reduced.

Robots are influencing warfare from a tactical standpoint and there is no sign that this trend will slow down in the future. How did we get to where we are today? What specific military roles do robots play now? Does the future of warfare look significantly different? Let’s answer these questions to truly grasp the impact of robots in the military.

Robots in the Military: A Brief History

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It may surprise you to hear how long robotics has been making an impact on warfare. The first sign of robots on the battlefield with any notable influence was World War II. The Teletank and a motorized explosive device called the Goliath were deployed by Russian and German troops respectively.

The Teletank was a radio-controlled vehicle that was capable of carrying guns, flame throwers, and other methods of war. It could be directed from nearly half a mile away via the radio controls. Russia formed two full battalions of the Teletank and used them during the Winter War. While technically robotic, it required significant input from humans including a trailing “control tank” that was responsible for control, protection, and destruction in the case of impending capture.

The Goliath (in German [translated]: Goliath Light Charge Carrier) was a one-time-use vehicle used to approach enemy installations, vehicles, or barricades and explode. There were varying models deployed during World War II. The Goliath was controlled via a joystick connected to a very long cable. This led to its demise in more cases than not, as the cable was vulnerable to disconnection and the vehicle itself could be destroyed by rifle fire.

The sticking point for robotics in a military setting has always been their necessity for human guidance. Initially, this was simply due to the lack of computerized control. More recently, human input is needed for moral purposes and because robots are frequently challenged by variables that tend to pop up in modern warfare. The robots being used now are starting to make ground outside of human control and those waiting for deployment in the future could be autonomous.

Robots Currently Being Used by the Military

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Automation, sensor systems, and artificial intelligence have all played a role in the increase in robots being used by militaries. Algorithms and advanced coding are allowing robots to be placed in battle theatres with the ability to decisively use countermeasures and deploy weapons on demand.

Not all robots used by militaries around the world have weapons on board. Some are being used for advanced reconnaissance while others are placed to help soldiers accomplish their mission in a supportive capacity.

Finding Those Who Need Help

Military units are frequently used by their respective countries as a form of highly skilled search and rescue outfit. Unfortunately, their limitations can often cause delays that result in lives lost. Robots are being developed that can assist with these rescue missions.

Rescue missions are especially dangerous on the battlefield and in war-stricken areas. Human military members are often limited due to the threat of violence, toxic environmental hazards, and physical restrictions. Robots can enter spaces that soldiers cannot, and many can be controlled from afar for optimal performance.

Calm Under Fire

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The next generation of military robots will be directly responsible for carrying out missions in a variety of areas. However, we need not wait to see the benefits of robotics on mission support. Robots are currently helping combat soldiers by aiding in a variety of scenarios. Robots can be found providing cover fire, dropping munitions on enemy positions, evaluating best-case scenarios, and refueling aircraft.

Robots were once restricted to non-lethal roles but are not any longer. These “soldiers of the future” are capable of operating better under fire than their human counterparts. The ability to diagnose information, avoid civilian casualties, and take on an enemy spread across an urban scene has made military robots indispensable.

Minesweeper

Once a popular game for early computer nerds, minesweeping is a role being taken on by highly efficient robots. Human interactions with mines are dangerous for obvious reasons and their ability to clear an area of all mines is often flawed. Robots can seek, find, and clear mines quickly without the inherent dangers associated with humans being involved.

I Spy a Robot

You probably will not before it spies you! Automated systems and robots are regularly used to surveil and collect data on enemy movements and behaviors. Robots are used high in the sky in the form of satellites and down on the ground as undetectable forward scouts.

The surveillance role is widely popular as most people are familiar with the robotic aircraft known as drones. These automated birds can be controlled manually or fly on their own to seek, watch, and even destroy enemy targets around the world.

Bombs Away

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Mines are not the only explosive material that poses a danger to human military personnel. Various explosive devices, including the infamous Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) used in many conflict zones, can be dismantled or safely discharged by robots.

Robots are being used to detect, locate, and safely dispose of all kinds of explosives by militaries and other public safety units like your local police department.

Control the Blaze

You may not think of firefighting when you think of the military, but it plays a major role in the safety and security of armed forces around the world. Nowhere is fire control more important than at sea. The United States Navy uses robots to help with fire suppression and control in extreme conditions.

The shipboard robots can locate a fire, use myriad tools and strategies to put it out, and can get closer to blazes due to being able to stand up to extremely high temperatures. Many of the robots are equipped with infrared cams to “see” through the smoke and navigate narrow passageways.

The Future of Robots in the Military

Robots are being put into use by militaries around the world. Their numbers are readily increasing and the variety of tasks they perform is broadening. However, some might say, “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

The future of robotics in the military is limitless from a technological standpoint. However, we may see the replacement of soldiers on a large scale held up by concerns over moral issues. Some are hesitant to arm and deploy autonomous mechanical soldiers for fear they may not respond correctly in fluid, real-life situations.

At the very least, we can expect an extended period of growth when it comes to robots entering the stash of military tools. Robots that are already in use will be improved with better AI and they will be utilized at higher rates moving forward.


Peter is a freelance writer with more than eight years of experience covering topics in politics. He was one of the guys that were here when the foreignpolicyi.org started.

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