Robot Tanks On Patrol But Not Allowed To Shoot

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Robot Tanks On Patrol But Not Allowed To Shoot

In 1985 the US pulled the plug on a computer-controlled anti-aircraft tank after a series of debacles in which its electronic brain locked guns onto a stand packed with top generals reviewing the device. Mercifully it didn’t fire, but did subsequently attack a portable toilet instead of a target drone.

The M247 Sergeant York (pictured above) may have been an embarrassing failure, but digital technology and artificial intelligence (AI) have changed the game since then.

Today defence contractors around the world are competing to introduce small unmanned tracked vehicles into military service.

Just like an army on the move, there are contrasting views about how far and how fast this technology will advance. Above all, designers are testing the limits of human control and machine independence, the ultimate goal of autonomy.

Will this new generation of mini-tanks change the face of warfare? How much autonomy can they be trusted with?

Estonian soldiers currently serving in Mali are going out on patrol with an unmanned ground vehicle or UGV. The size of a sit-on lawn-mower with tracks, it carries heavy supplies such as water and ammunition. Trundling behind a conventional armoured personnel carrier it resembles an obedient younger sibling.

UK defence technology group Qinetiq presented the British army with a selection of these vehicles during a month-long trial on Salisbury Plain in late 2018. The basic UGV came from the Estonian company Milrem, but Qinetiq integrated a series of technology options onto it to create a trio of military roles.

Keith Mallon is in charge of UGVs at Qinetiq. While a small tank weaving across a muddy plain is a curious sight, he focuses on the digital contents of the UGV.

“We’ve had robotics for years, but the information revolution means it can navigate on its own.”

Machine learning, a subset of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution, means software embedded in Titan recognises patterns. Data from its cameras and other sensors is matched to prior examples so it can navigate to a chosen destination.

The idea is to have minimal human intervention while Titan goes about supporting the troops or exploring a dangerous area. But the freedom Qinetiq will grant to the UGV is strictly limited.

When it comes to firing a gun or anti-tank missile mounted on the chassis a human must always be in the loop to decide on the use of lethal force. “We will never give software the capability to fire a weapon,” says Keith Mallon.

https://www.bbc.com

Does all this mean robot mini-tanks have really won acceptance?

Nick Entwistle spent 19 years serving in the British army in tanks and armoured vehicles. Today he advises the army and has studied the results of the Salisbury Plain trials. He points out that warfare throws up choices that go way beyond the capabilities of current AI technology.

Mirrors – Justin Timberlake (Lyrics)

“Even humans have trouble discriminating between a civilian and a combatant. And human beings are adept at reading situations. But look at Afghanistan where the enemy hid among civilians. So autonomy is not going to happen for some time. The technology is further away than some like to think.”

Across the Atlantic US defence contractor FLIR has been buying up robotics firms in order to put together a UGV package with a group of technology and engineering firms, Team Ripsaw. This group has adapted the Ripsaw, a small tracked vehicle with sports car speeds popularised on TV and by Hollywood.

Robot Tanks On Patrol But Not Allowed To Shoot

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