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Robotic Gunner Screened Human Soldiers in U.S. Army War Game

Robotic fire support could signal a profound shift in the ground-combat branch's acceptance of armed robots.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

A machine-gun-armed robotic armored vehicle provided covering fire for U.S. Army soldiers during a summer 2017 war game, a top Army official said.

The robotic fire support, part of the Army's Northern Strike exercise in Michigan in late July and early August, could signal a profound shift in the ground-combat branch's acceptance of armed robots.

Back in 2008, the Army sidelined an earlier model of armed robot that it had deployed to Iraq amid rumors that the 'bot might erratically aim its machine gun. Nine years later, officials finally allowed a similar automaton to fire in close proximity to U.S. troops during a realistic training exercise.

"We’re at the point of heightened expectations and we’re at the trough of disillusionment," Paul Rodgers, director of the Army’s Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center, said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International convention in Maryland in early February.

For the Michigan war game, engineers added a remote-controlled machine gun to boxy, tracked M-113 armored vehicle that was also remote-controlled. The operators of the M-113 and its machine gun followed behind in an M-577 command vehicle, issuing commands via radio.

"The scenario here was a complex breach in a minefield," Rodgers told Defense One. Soldiers were trying to get through the simulated mines and close enough to an earthen berm to blow it up with explosive charges.

When the soldiers were in position, the drone M-113 maneuvered into a firing position "to provide a screen," Maj. John Dickson, a TARDEC manager, told National Defense, a trade magazine. The M-113 fired live ammunition during the war game. And in stark contrast to the 2008 deployment, apparently nothing went wrong.

The incident-free war game could bolster the Pentagon's efforts to add armed robots to front-line Army units. "The U.S. military has not made it a secret they have been aggressively pursuing, expanding and integrating their robotic and autonomous systems strategy," Julie Carpenter, a robotics researcher at California Polytechnic State University, told The Daily Beast via email. "I'd say this system was part of that plan, a public demonstration."

Robotics have advanced since 2008. Autonomous systems are cheaper, more reliable and more sophisticated. The military has fielded thousands of aerial and underwater drones, many of them armed.

But the Army in particular has been slower to embrace weaponized ground robots, which must work closely with human beings on rough terrain during chaotic battles. In 2009, the Defense Department cancelled a wide-ranging, $92-billion effort to develop, from scratch, several models of autonomous, gun-armed ground vehicles for the Army plus a new communications network for controlling them.

By contrast, the 2017 experiment involved Vietnam War-vintage armored vehicles with add-on remote systems including sensors, servos and weapons. Using old hardware helped to keep down costs and minimize risk. "Proprietary, sole-source solutions are going to be unaffordable for the U.S. Army going forward," Rodgers explained.

The Army possesses thousands of old armored vehicles that could be candidates for robotic upgrades -- giving the ground-combat branch a clear opportunity to rapidly field a large number of armed robots, if it so chooses.

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"The M-113 has a long history in our (and other) military(ies)," Carpenter wrote. "It has been a reliable and flexible system for its purposes. If this unit can be weaponized and modified relatively inexpensively ... that fits into [the Army's robot] integration goals, overall."

In that sense, the Army's earlier failures with more bespoke armed robots helped to make possible the current drive toward cheaper, more reliable and potentially more capable war-'bots. "You have to fail in order to really realize the potential of the future of these things," Rodgers said.