For the first time, the U.S. Army is conducting live fire drills that pair soldiers and autonomous ground robots armed with .50-caliber machine guns, reports Defense One, a military news publication.
The drills are designed to determine how and if the robots and humans can fight together side-by-side.
“The exercise is an important step in understanding how humans and machines will fight together in close quarters, where fields of fire aren’t always clear as they are for a Reaper drone overhead,” Defense One stated.
The Army announced that the drills took place in July and August during the Northern Strike exercise at Michigan’s Camp Grayling. The event debuted an unmanned, heavily armed M113 armored personnel carrier. A driver and a weapons operator "followed behind in a slightly larger M577 command post vehicle,” the report states.
Paul Rogers, director of the Army’s Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center did not say when armed ground robots might be deployed.
“We are on that path of exploration," Rogers told Defense One. "It’s experiment, test, feedback, [address] concerns, challenges and limitations. You go through an iterative approach. But the faster we can turn those iterations, the better.’
How does the Army plan to use armed robots?
An Army document states that going forward, Artificial Intelligence will play a key role in the Robot and Autonomous Systems Strategy. That means the robots will carry out decisions that typically require “perception, conversation, and decision-making.” That includes “the rules of engagement.”
“Artificial intelligence (AI) is the capability of computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence such as perception, conversation, and decision-making,” the report states. “Advances in AI are making it possible to cede to machines many tasks long regarded as impossible for machines to perform. AI will play a key role in RAS development as reasoning and learning in computers evolves. AI will improve the ability for RAS to operate independently in tasks such as off-road driving and analyzing and managing mass amounts of data for simplified human decision-making. Increasingly, AI will account for operational factors such as mission parameters, rules of engagement, and detailed terrain analysis.
“As human-machine collaboration matures, AI will contribute to faster and improved decision-making in five areas: identifying strategic indications and warnings; advancing narratives and countering adversarial propaganda; supporting operational/campaign-level decision-making; enabling leaders to employ “mixed” manned/unmanned formations; and enhancing the conduct of specific defensive missions in which functions of speed, amount of information, and synchronization might overwhelm human decision-making.”
The use of autonomous robots raises questions about their reliability and risk, especially if they malfunction.
The drills last summer represent the first time troops and robots worked together during a live fire exercise. But it was not the first time an armed robot has worked alongside troops, according to Defense One.
In 2003, shortly after the U.S. invaded Iraq, troops used a “mini tank bot" called SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System).
By 2007, the bot “was out hunting in the streets, armed with an M249 machine gun. SWORDS was effectively grounded after a series of incidents in which it began to behave unpredictably, swinging its gun in chaotic directions," Defense One reported.
What have critics said?
A robot randomly swinging a machine gun is the very type of scenario that concerns Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit human advocacy group that is strongly opposed to autonomous robots. The group warns about the dangers of using armed robots with no human intervention and has called for a ban their use.
Human Rights Watch calls the devices “killer robots.”