The West has always been a little squeamish about the idea of arming robots. Despite decades of development, no systems have ever been deployed and a vocal human rights campaign means it’s unlikely to happen in the near future. The Russians, on the other hand, appear to be rather less concerned.
Last month, Dmitry Andreyev of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces announced that mobile robots would be standing guard over five ballistic missile installations. These robots can detect and destroy targets, without human involvement. Russia, it seems, is taking the lead in a new robotic arms race.
The robot sentry, aka the “mobile robotic complex“, was developed by Izhevsk Radio Plant, a company based 1200 kilometres east of Moscow. It weighs around 900 kilograms and has cameras, a laser rangefinder and radar sensors. For fire power it has a 12.7-millimetre heavy machine gun, with optional smaller weapons. It is quick too, hitting speeds of 45 kilometres per hour on a petrol engine. It can operate for 10 hours, or switch to sleep mode for a week.
The makers put the sentry robot through its paces at an arms fair in Russia last year. Andreyev describes the robots as being able to engage targets in automatic as well as semi-automatic control mode. US policy, on the other hand, says a person has to authorise when weapons are fired. Drones don’t fire missiles on their own, but act as remote launch platforms for human operators. Neither the makers of the Russian robot nor the Strategic Missile Forces responded to New Scientist‘s request for an interview at the time of going to press.
Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoygu is behind the move to arm robots. In January 2013, he said the army would expand its use of robots, saving $2.4 billion over two years. In June, the deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin announced plans for a new military robot laboratory at the Degtyarev arms factory in Kovrov, and a new centre of military robotics at the Zhukovsky Air Force Engineering Academy. According to Rogozin, the robots will save lives: “We have to conduct battles without any contact, so that our boys do not die, and for that it is necessary to use war robots.”
In the US, unarmed sentry robots called MDARS patrol nuclear sites and Marine bases, but there appears to be little appetite for armed robots. Thousands of US robots, known as unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), were rolled out for bomb disposal in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the trial deployment of SWORDS, an armed version of the Talon bomb-disposal robot, in Iraq in 2007 was cancelled due to “uncommanded or unexpected movements”. There were rumours of robots going rogue and turning their machine-guns on friendly troops. In fact, there were two minor incidents, one caused by a loose wire and one by faulty solder. But commanders were spooked enough to postpone SWORDS’ debut.
Thomas Nash, director of Article 36, the UK-based arms control campaign group, is worried. “The prospect of states developing autonomous weapons systems that would identify targets on their own and attack them is a grave concern for humanity,” he says.
He should brace himself. Russia’s armed UGVs may soon be called on to fight in the front line. A promotional video for the interior ministry shows their commandos training with an armed robot.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Armed and dangerous”