Robot Mules, Birds and Snakes Helping on the Warfront

From drones and other surveillance bots, to robotic surgeons and payload carriers, robots are lending a helping hand to military forces in many countries. But it will be long, or never, before these replace man on the warfront. After all, they have neither heart and mind, nor any reason to fight -- Janani Gopalakrishnan Vikram

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 [stextbox id=”info”]Like any other standard application, robotics, when applied to defence, optimises speed, accuracy, tirelessness and capability[/stextbox]

“We have seen and heard of many robots designed and inspired by functionalities of the structures of many living organisms such as birds, fishes and reptiles. The Snakebot is one such robot used for surveillance. The 1.82-metre (six feet) Snakebot developed by Biorobotics and Biomechanics Lab of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology consists of polymer segments connected by flexible joints, and is powered by electric motors. Movement control relies on a software that determines the best mode of travel (wriggling, rolling or corkscrewing)for each situation. Snakebot can also rise up to climb stairs and other vertical obstacles. Even NASA is develop-ing Snakebots to explore space,” says Shekhar.

Harvard University’s 60-milligram robot with a three-centimetre wingspan and Festo’s SmartBird robot are other examples of nature-inspired surveillance bots.

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Against all odds
“Robots in the defence sector are designed for harsh weather conditions and their performance is always compared with their human counterparts in such conditions. These don’t need life-support systems to survive harsh conditions and can go for long hours or days on single-mission deployment. Even if a robot is lost in action, another one can be sent. There is no need for a rescue operation, which in itself is a huge saving in the operating cost and precious lives,” says Fahad Azad, managing partner, RoboSoft Systems.
[stextbox id=”info” caption=”Indian perspective”]

He Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) Daksh is a real proof of India’s technological prowess. Daksh robot is India’s first indigenously manufactured remotely-operated vehicle, which is capable of handling and disposing improvised explosive devices. After experimenting with around 20 units, the Indian army announced that it is procuring a hundred more units of Daksh for deploying in the army.

DRDO has also announced its plans to develop a robot soldier by 2020-30. “Whatever a soldier will do in warfare, a robot soldier should be able to do. That’s the plan,” said Dr V.K. Saraswat, scientific advisor to the defence minister and secretary of Defence R&D. The robot soldiers, controlled from remote locations, can do multiple tasks including fighting humans and carrying loads of ammunitions.

“We need to include a lot of artificial intelligence to avoid collision. Also, a lot of robot soldiers need to communicate with each other in the battlefield. Enormous amount of database and analytic intelligence is required for this,” Dr Saraswat said. DRDO, apparently, also has plans to replace mules with robots to carry heavy loads to places like Siachen.

That said, there appears to be a bit of a disappointment in the local robotics ecosystem as most of the defence budget apart from the DRDO projects is going abroad. “There is huge potential growth in this space but the government needs to start investing in local companies like Israel, the US, Russia or China do, rather than depending on other countries for technology support, as it has traditionally been. As of now, it appears that 70 per cent of the defence budget of India is outsourced to other countries. There needs to be a change in the government’s procuring process,” comments Azad


From this perspective, Azad appreciates the work of Boston Dynamics, especially their BigDog product. Imagine a huge dog with big strong legs carrying huge payloads and marching alongside soldiers as they cross mountainous or even dessert regions! One great feature of the BigDog is force-controlled technology. With its quadruped gait, the robot dog, or mule as some call it, can regain balance if it is kicked, handle rough terrain like rocks, and climb inclines up to 35 degrees.

Last year, the company revealed a bigger and more useful beast code named LS3 or BullDog. While the original BigDog could carry a payload of about 150 kg up to 20 km without having to refuel, the new model can carry 180 kg up to about 30 km. It is also quieter and can jump over obstacles, right itself after a fall and navigate with greater autonomy than its predecessor.

Growing intelligence
Despite the increasing physical capability and other benefits of robots, why are people still sceptical about their impending role in war? Is it simply because these are supposedly less intelligent than humans? While this is true to a large extent, the fact is that robots are slowly becoming more intelligent.



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