May 29, 2017      

As the U.S. marks Memorial Day, it’s time to pause and reflect on past wars and what can be done to avoid or win future conflicts. Defense automation is already big business, and military robotics and artificial intelligence applications promise to act as “force multipliers” and save lives. However, the specters of a new arms race and mutually assured destruction lurk in the background. Are you worried?

Just as automotive manufacturers are still the leading users of industrial automation, so too is military demand driving service robotics. This is likely to continue into the foreseeable future, according to Goldman Sachs.

By 2025, global spending on defense automation is expected to reach $16.5 billion, more than three times the $5.1 billion spent on military robotics in 2010.

As countries spend billions to develop military robotics, they are creating their own niche markets within this sector.

The U.S. is the obvious spending and technology leader and is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 0.06%, according to Orbis Research.

Three other countries are also shaping the development of defense automation: India, Israel, and Russia.

Business Takeaways:

  • Defense automation is likely to remain a major driver of R&D and investment in mobile and service robotics.
  • After the U.S., the militaries of Russia, Israel, and India are actively pursuing autonomous systems.
  • Both military and civilian robotics will benefit from defense spending, but proliferation is a concern.

India’s doctrine expects robot soldiers

In 2010, India’s military unveiled its ambitious “military robot doctrine,” which calls for having robots conduct 50% of all military operations within 10 years. At the time, the Indian military had 16 top-secret programs for defense automation.

In 2013, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), India’s equivalent to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was reported to be developing robot soldiers with a “very high level of intelligence.”

India wants to deploy robot soldiers in different areas, like the Line of Control between it and Pakistan. In line with this objective, the country wants an “advanced robotic soldier” patrolling and protecting its borders by 2023.

Will military robotics in India get a further boost as the government ramps up military spending to an astonishing $620 billion?

Israel builds on autonomy

Last August, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) announced that it had deployed “fully automated self-driving military vehicles” to patrol its borders with the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip.

The IDF planned to deploy these same vehicles, equipped with weapons, to Israel’s borders with Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. It has partnered with defense contractor Elbit Systems.

Defense automation in Israel includes the Guardium UGV.

Israel’s homemade Guardium UGV is intended for border security.

Prior to this, the IDF was using Guardium, an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) developed by Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI). This is the same company that unveiled an updated UGV that can be “tweaked” on demand to adapt to different conditions. It can be used for attack and protection missions, among other deployment options.

The IAI has also developed Harop, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to track the radio frequencies of enemy planes. It can then crash into them — hence the nickname “suicide drones.”

Given the use of suicide bombers by terrorists, it’s no surprise that drone countermeasures are also increasingly popular, as seen at this past month’s AUVSI Xponential event in Dallas.

In addition, Harop is equipped with an “autonomous platform” that is viewed as a “precursor” to fully autonomous weapons.

In March, Indian Internet of Things (IoT) company CRON Systems said it will work on border security with Israel’s Automotive Robotic Security. The multimillion-dollar deal will combine ARI’s AGVs and CRON’s intrusion-detection systems.

Russia invests in automated combat

As far back as 2009, Russia has been testing the MRK-27 BT robotic soldier (nicknamed “Point of Combat”). The goal of the robot was to ensure that objectives can be achieved in situations where fatalities are “highly likely.”

In 2013, Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy Russian prime minister in charge of defense, guided the creation of the Fund for Advanced Research (FPI), a Russian equivalent to DARPA.

In early 2016, FPI unveiled two new robot prototypes. “Fyodor” was designed for space exploration and copies the actions of its human operator in real time.

The Russian military is also interested in developing remote operations. For instance, one defense automation application could help soldiers take out incoming drones.

Platform-M is a combat robot unveiled in 2014 that includes grenade launchers and rifles. Russia is also working on machines that resemble the cute robot in the animated film Wall-E. These robotic soldiers will be deployed in 2018.

The Russian Military Industrial Committee has projected that by 2025, 30% of Russia’s “combat power” will be based in “remotely controlled and robotic platforms.”

Russia’s Armata T-14 semi-autonomous tank is considered a precursor to fully autonomous systems. The Pentagon has said that the U.S. won’t trust fully automated weapons platforms, but will other nations be so restrained?

More on International Robotics and Defense Automation:

A brave new world

There is little doubt that India, Israel, and Russia are making inroads in their respective areas of military robotics. As countries large and small invest in defense automation, technology could affect the balance of geopolitical power.

How will global institutions regulate trade in military robotics? What does this mean for the future of robotics patents? How will non-state actors partake in this defense automation race?

All of this and more are covered in my next article.