As with other cutting-edge technologies, national security and defense investments have helped advance robots, assistive devices, and unmanned systems. The military robotics market is huge and growing worldwide, offering opportunities for robotics developers and suppliers.
Given falling recruitment numbers and no end in sight for several ongoing conflicts, it’s no surprise that the U.S. military could have more robots than people by the year 2025, according to some estimates.
Europe is the second-largest market for military robotics, trailing only North America. Defense systems reached $4.47 billion in Europe in 2018 and could see better than 12% growth every year between 2019 and 2025.
Robots serve multiple purposes in the military, and not all of them are related to exchanging fire on the battlefield. They can augment human capabilities, protect soldiers from harm’s way — or remove them entirely — and safely respond to threats of all kinds, including natural disasters.
Here are four recent developments of technical progress and new applications in military robotics:
1. Autonomous ships earn their sea legs
Sea Hunter is an autonomous seagoing vessel designed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to track and nullify enemy submarines. After completing its work on Sea Hunter in 2018, DARPA handed the project over to the Office of Naval Research (ONR).
“ONR appreciates the truly impressive work by DARPA in advancing this technology,” said the office back in 2016. “ONR is looking forward to continuing and capitalizing on the science and technology work. In particular, we are already working on autonomous control, a challenging area that is key to maturing MDUSV and delivering it to the fleet.”
Sea Hunter is presently in open-water testing and undergoing additional refinements. Last year, it conducted an unmanned trip to Hawaii and back and demonstrated further potential for electronic warfare.
Automation is first and foremost about saving money and time, even for the U.S. Navy. It costs $700,000 per day to keep a naval destroyer in operation. Eventually, Sea Hunter will be able to cover thousands of miles of ocean, for months at a time, without a living soul aboard. When it’s complete, Sea Hunter and other autonomous ships should cost just $15,000 to $20,000 per day to operate.
Although Sea Hunter is designed for antisubmarine warfare, other robotic vessels could benefit from advances in autonomy.
2. Remote-controlled ground combat vehicles
The U.S. Army plans to test robotic combat vehicles this year. It has been working with academic and industry researchers to automate vehicles of different sizes. The Army has already been demonstrating semi-autonomous vehicles and tele-operation.
In the summer of 2017, the U.S. military conducted the world’s first live-fire exercise to demonstrate the capabilities of a remote-controlled combat vehicle at Camp Grayling in Michigan. It featured what Paul Rogers, director of the Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center, called “a complex breach in a minefield.”
Last October, the National Advanced Mobility Consortium chose four companies to build Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV-L) prototypes — HDT Global, Oshkosh Defense, QinetiQ, and Textron. The public-private consortium is part of a military robotics effort to create vehicles of various sizes, starting with add-ons to existing platforms.
In November, the U.S. Army awarded General Dynamics Land Systems a $162.4 million contract to make robotic “mules” in the Small Multipurpose Equipment Transports program.
This summer, the Army is planning for the first phase of testing for Mission Enabler Technologies-Demonstrators (MET-Ds). The MET-Ds are modified Bradley fighting vehicles that will conduct platoon-level maneuvers, according to Military.com. Live-fire tests will occur at Fort Carson, Colo., and in Europe.
3. Anti-drone defenses leap ahead
The biggest news in defense robotics isn’t the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to carry out unmanned missions, but rather how to defend oneself against a drone strike. Impact barriers and perimeter fencing products for military installations and embassies carry ASTM and other certifications, indicating impact-readiness against vehicles — including unmanned ones.
Conducting successful air defense against drones requires a different kind of perimeter, however. And the U.S. is far from the only country or group ramping up its use of military robotics in combat zones. The war in Yemen featured heavy use of improvised drones, and the U.K. has funded 18 drone countermeasure projects.
China has its own fleet of UAVs standing ready, reported military commentator Zhou Chenming. “I don’t see China using this method,” he wrote in reference to the killing of Qassem Soleimani in Iraq by the U.S. military. Zhou suggested that flashy shows of force may be a misuse of drones’ capabilities.
“Drones are quiet, fly at low altitude and are hard to detect,” he said. “So to prevent a drone attack is difficult and costly.”
Chenming was right about the cost of anti-drone defense — at least until very recently. Last summer, the U.S. Air Force demonstrated Tactical High-Power Microwave Operational Responder, or THOR, a weapon that can disable swarms of enemy drones. Personnel at the Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base developed THOR.
The Air Force began conducting testing against long-range targets in spring 2019. THOR uses high-powered microwaves, delivered in quick, targeted bursts, to swat drones out of the air.
It took 18 months and $15 million to develop the system, which receives power from a generator. The system and the generator can be stored in a shipping container and transported and set up almost anywhere in hours.
4. Autonomously powered exoskeleton meets criteria
Military robotics can take many forms, including powered exoskeletons. To be truly useful on the battlefield or in other emergency situations, an exoskeleton must must augment the strength, dexterity, and stamina of the wearer, and it must be reasonably quick and easy to put on and take off. It must also contain its own power source.
After witnessing a successful trial run, the U.S. Special Operations Command in 2019 formally contracted with Sarcos Robotics to deliver exoskeletons that meet each of these criteria. The Guardian XO, expected to be commercially available later this year, allows the wearer to lift up to 200 pounds, and can operate for up to eight hours.
Sarcos CEO Ben Wolff explained why this capacity is significant: “With our innovations in optimizing power utilization, Sarcos has been able to do what no other robotics company in the world has been able to do — power a human-scale robot doing meaningful work.
(Editor’s note: Sarcos Robotics’ Guardian XO, expected to be commercially available later this year and demonstrated publicly for the first time at CES 2020, was formerly known as the XO Max and can lift up to 200 lb. for eight hours on a single charge.)
There are many ways to put powered robotic exoskeletons to work in the military. Some are obvious, like granting soldiers greater strength to carry heavy weapons or equipment over significant distances.
Others are less obvious, like assisting workers in shipbuilding facilities. Powered exoskeletons have the potential to keep first responders safer as they comb rubble for survivors or engage in cleanup operations.
Military robotics is about more than war
The ability to remotely control heavy, well-armed vehicles and robots brings us to a watershed moment. The world is looking at totally different methods for waging war and responding to a variety of other physical threats.
Despite ethics concerns — which are more about human accountability and policy making than technology — keeping the people in the armed forces and emergency-response agencies secure is a worthwhile application of robotics. Military robotics can serve both as a force multiplier and as a safeguard.