Defence programmed

Robots are coming to the battlefield but not in a front-line attack role, or not for the foreseeable future. ‘The problem with autonomous weapons-bearing robots is that they haven’t a conscience and can’t be blamed if something goes wrong,’ said Dr Clinton Blackman, Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera) SRP land systems sector manager, at […]

Robots are coming to the battlefield but not in a front-line attack role, or not for the foreseeable future.

‘The problem with autonomous weapons-bearing robots is that they haven’t a conscience and can’t be blamed if something goes wrong,’ said Dr Clinton Blackman, Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera) SRP land systems sector manager, at a recent special interest group forum on military robotics.

But Blackwell added: ‘Robotics will play a significant role on the battlefield of 2020, whether in high conflict or anti-terrorist and urban operations other than war. They will mostly be used where it is unacceptable to use manned systems, and must form part of an integrated system solution.’

At the forum, Dera and British Army experts outlined extensive plans for robotics in battlefield and urban anti-terrorist scenarios up to 2020. Special emphasis was given to remote control robotic mine and bomb disposal systems.

Dera scientists emphasised that to prevent Robocop-type scenarios in which malfunctioning robots could harm enemy and friendly troops alike, it will be essential to keep human operators firmly in control.

In military situations, robotics and intelligent vehicles will have to meet the ‘manoeuvre doctrine’, which demands information dominance, superior firepower and surprise. In de-mining and humanitarian operations, they will play an important part where it is considered unacceptable to risk military lives.

Blackman says there has been intense interest in battlefield robotics since the late 1980s. A decade ago, the Mobile Advanced Robotics Defence Initiative was set up as a joint programme between industry and the defence sector. As a result, Dera developed a tele-operated mobile command prototype, due to enter service between 2004 and 2008. It has remote-controlled weapon systems carried on the chassis of a Scorpion tank, and can accelerate up to 40km/h, covering rough terrain.

From 1985 to 1995, Dera also carried out work on intelligent road-following vehicles under the Rova programme. But, says Blackman, interest in this field has come more from the civil than military arena.

The range of robotic and remote controlled systems developed by Dera include a remote controlled JCB and an abrasive waterjet system for disabling bombs.

Remote controlled vehicles displayed at the forum included a combat tractor for earth moving, which has 3-D glasses to help judge the position of objects ahead; and the Drift(driving remotely in following truck) system, in which a remote vehicle is controlled from a distance by a manned truck, using a tensioned cable connection. In disposal operations, the lead truck can be fitted with a mine scattering device.

For fire fighting, Dera has developed Carlos, a vehicle for civilian use which can undertake surveying tasks, handle fire hoses and chemical hazards, and can also deploy sensors such as thermal imagers.

Following a Nato strategic review of defence technology in 1997, Dera has identified 11 robotic areas where there is potential for future developments for the MoD and other defence customers. Cambridge Consultants carried out a survey of market opportunities. As a result, promising applications have been identified, ranging from surveillance systems which can be rapidly deployed and automated field warehousing to a sentry device to identify suspicious objects or behaviour (see box).

Blackman stresses that while some of the technologies behind these future applications are fairly mature like local object identification, image stabilisation, fly by wire, and small vehicle mobility on smooth surfaces technologies such as object recognition in cluttered environments, self-maintaining systems and collision avoidance at speed will only mature between 2010 and 2030.

He thinks nanotechnology will have many uses, like nano-mapping devices, nano-flying machines and nano-guidance systems.

‘Generally, it takes 10 to 15 years for research to turn into niche applications and a further 10 years before more widespread adoption of new defence technology,’ says Blackman. And any new technology must satisfy the MoD demand for investment at the optimum time to maximum benefit.

The war machines

Defence applications for robots identified by Dera

Robot-Store: an automated field warehouse.

Trundle: an unmanned stores distribution vehicle.

Smart Truck: a heavy-duty land-clearance device for contaminated areas.

Investigator: a tiny airborne surveillance unit.

Area Net: a rapidly deployable wide area surveillance system.

Mapbot: a robot for mapping an area in order to destroy mines.

Person Locator: a tele-operated device for locating casualties.

Sleuth: a sentry device to identify suspicious objects or behaviour.

Parasite: a small bugging device which attaches itself to a target.

Mimic decoy: a decoy able to cause confusion by mimicking local objects.