April 06, 2016      

Hermes, Professor, Thing, and Fester.

These are the names of the first four robots to ever be used in ground combat. In 2002, the U.S. military deployed them in Qiqay, Afghanistan, to search caves that were possible hiding spots for terrorists and weapons.

More than 10 years later, military applications for robots have gone beyond searching caves. Now, these machines are close to becoming fully autonomous — capable of making decisions on their own, without human input.

Officials in the U.S. Department of Defense have said they are exploring the idea of soldiers operating alongside robots that can “act on their own.” They want to make sure that the robots can still execute tasks even if communications are cut.

Military robotics, from unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned ground vehicles to autonomous underwater vehicles, are also big business. The market will grow from $13.55 billion in 2015 to $21.11 billion in 2020, predicts a report from Markets and Markets.

The report names U.S.-based Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp., and General Dynamics Corp. as market leaders. Other prominent suppliers include BAE Systems PLC in the U.K., Dassault Aviation SA in France, and Hanwha Techwin Co. (formerly a division of Samsung) in South Korea.

East and West develop military automation

The U.K. has developed Black Hornet, a 4-in.-long drone that soldiers can control via joystick and send out into the field to conduct reconnaissance.

In 2012, the British Royal Artillery purchased Fire Shadow, a missile that can fly for hours, or pursue a moving target, until it is given the instruction to attack.

As part of an annual NATO drill this fall, the U.K. Ministry of Defence will hold an event showcasing autonomous marine vehicles. It has invited companies that are developing related technologies.

Japan has a strategy called the “Zero Casualty Battle System,” which seeks to avoid casualties by using technology in place of human soldiers. Under this plan, Japan’s Technical Research and Development Institute last year proposed $7.5 million in research funding for a military exoskeleton.

Norwegian autonomous missile

Norway has developed an autonomous missile system.

Norway-based Kongsberg Defense & Aerospace has developed a Joint Strike Missile system that attaches to fighter jets and controls their weapons. It can select targets and launch missiles — without “human interference.”

More alarmingly to the West, Russia and China are collaborating on “killer robots.”

In fact, Russia’s advancements are taking place so fast that in 2014, its Strategic Missile Force revealed that it would deploy semi-autonomous “armed sentry robots” at five missile installations.

Retaining control, accountability

As militaries around the world make advances in autonomous robots, a new geopolitical risk emerges. What happens when the robot makes the wrong decision?

This wouldn’t be a long shot. Already, human drone operators are facing challenges from stress and being overworked. As of 2011, 17 percent of U.S. drone pilots reportedly experienced “clinical distress.” What happens when autonomous robots are “overworked?”

In 2014, Norway intercepted 74 Russian warplanes throughout the year, a 27 percent increase from 2013. The next time Norway scrambles its F-16s, if the Joint Strike Missile is on board, what is the risk of starting a confrontation?

Norwegian forces would want to intercept and accompany the Russian warplanes out of local airspace. But the automated system could identify the Russian warplanes as immediate threats and fire missiles.

All of a sudden, because of software designed to relieve human pilots of some duties, NATO and Russia risk engaging in acts of war.

A shifting but recognizable landscape

The U.S. is continuing to lead in development of military robotics and autonomous systems.

In 2016, the Boeing Co. unveiled a new unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) called the Echo Voyager. Unlike previous UUVs, which could only stay submerged for days, the new UUV can remain underwater for up to six months and has a 7,500-mile range — the equivalent of San Francisco to Hong Kong. Is there a military application here?

The company isn’t new to the military robotics industry. Nine years ago, in 2007, Boeing partnered with iRobot to develop a new military reconnaissance robot. iRobot has since divested of its defense division to Arlington Capital Partners. The division has been renamed Endeavor Robotics.

Northrop Grumman is largely focused on in-field military robots and fighter jets. In 2015, it signed a contract potentially worth $483 million for one of its bomb-disposal robots.

While some companies move forward with military robots and autonomous capabilities, some robotics companies are staying clear. One of them is Kitchener, Ontario-based Clearpath Robotics Inc., which in 2013 signed onto the “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.”

A business opportunity?

The perceived threat of autonomous robots is so real that in mid-2015, the Future of Life Institute (FLI) called for a ban on autonomous weapons in an open letter signed by the likes of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking.

From a business perspective, however, autonomous applications look very different. The more that governments use military robotics, the bigger the need for them to distinguish between “right” and “wrong” will become.

For a robotics company, this presents an opportunity: Can you teach autonomous military robots, through software or hardware, ethical behavior personalized to their environments?

Governments are already thinking about this. In 2014, the U.S. Office of Naval Research announced a $7.5 million study over five years to build comprehension of morality into robots.

Military technology suppliers are not limited to the U.S. or Norway. Based on the natural evolution of robotics and artificial intelligence, autonomous capabilities are already making their way into militaries around the world.

As of 2012, the largest buyers for military robots were (in order): the U.S., Israel, the U.K., Germany, China, South Korea, Singapore, Australia, France, and Canada.

This also presents an opportunity for robotics investors. Militaries will need to have systems to teach their autonomous machines what to do and what not to do. Companies that are specializing in this AI and related fields may be largely unrecognized, underfunded “gems.”

Also a risk?

Investing in autonomous military robots also carries a business risk for robotics companies and investors. There is a growing possibility that the technology you created or business you invested in can become part of a conflict or fall into the wrong hands.

Protestors against killer robots

Clearpath Robotics supports the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

How do you know the technologies of the company you invested in won’t be responsible for a future military conflict?

The global military robot market is projected to reach $8 billion this year. And, according to Goldman Sachs, military robots will lead the service robot industry. Between 2014 and 2017, these robots will grow two times faster than the second market leader: milking robots.

In other words, two circles are rapidly developing and converging. The first is military robotics. The second is autonomous capabilities. The more that these technologies are adopted, the higher chance of an international conflict grows.

And the risk of your business being dragged in rises. This can be seen as new version of “political risk” driven by robotics where your reputation, partnerships, investments, and operations are all at stake.

Looking to tomorrow

Autonomous military robots are here to stay. Even if one country limits them, like the U.S., there is no stopping Iran, China, or Japan from continuing to develop and research them. In fact, this is the very threat the Pentagon recently addressed when it said that even though the U.S. will not give its military systems full autonomy, there is no stopping “adversary nations” from doing so.

The driving force behind these advancements is the perceived need for geopolitical strength. New battlefields and scenarios are rapidly emerging.

China recently said it plans to send 3,000 troops to Pakistan to protect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. In a few years, could it send 3,000 robot soldiers?

Autonomous robots require advanced software to act independently. In addition, they need the ability to know what decisions to make and when. Unlike humans, who take decades to learn right from wrong, robotic learning can be streamlined to months.

To accelerate this learning, robotics companies and investors from around the world will need to be involved.

Are you one of them?

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