Killer Robots Latest weapons news

AOAV is working to reduce armed violence - please help us by sharing our work:

Killer robots: dystopian fiction or imminent threat?

The arms industry has come a long way since World War I, when engineers first started to consider “flying bombs” – pilotless, radio-controlled aircraft packed with explosives. Those early experiments, like the Kettering Bug, an “unmanned aerial torpedo”, or the V-1, a predecessor of the cruise missile, were ahead of their time and mostly saw limited use.

Today, things are different: modern drones, the descendants of those early experiments, have revolutionised warfare in the last decade. That revolution has also prompted abundant questions about the legality and morality of killing from afar.

But if it took a century to make weapons work remotely, the step from there to weapons which work on their own is likely to be much faster. And that prospect has sparked an international debate.

Unlike drones, these ‘killer robots’ would have the ability to select a target and fire on it without any human intervention. By definition, autonomous weapons are systems that “once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator”.

Autonomous weapons walk a fine line between curiosity and fear, leading to intense speculation about their potential forms and roles. However, the international community’s recent acknowledgement for a need to discuss killer robots under the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons has only confirmed the reality of their threat.

But how close are these weapons to actually fighting on the world’s battlefields? It’s difficult to say. And it is even harder to come up with a comprehensive list of systems that might, one day, fight autonomously. It is the combination of different components, developed separately, and advances in robotics, sensors and image processing units that could gradually lead to battle-ready autonomous weapons.

And even though it may seem that way, the good news is that we are not completely in the dark. Let us take look at some of the precursors of autonomous weapons systems that already exhibit several worrying features.

 

IN THE SKY

X-47B

Manufacturer: Northrop Grumman (USA)
Status: Demonstration only, unarmed

What is it?
The Dorito-shaped Northrop Grumman X-47B is an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) developed for the US Navy to demonstrate the technology necessary for a long-range, stealthy unmanned combat plane. It was the first unmanned vehicle to land and take off from an aircraft carrier – one of the most difficult manoeuvres in aviation.

The current system has a wingspan of 62ft, travels at subsonic speed and cannot carry weapons, but Northrop Grumman is already working on a successor. The X-47C will be stealthy, significantly larger and able to carry a payload of 10,000lbs – almost three times as much as the frequently used MQ-9 Reaper drone.

Implications for autonomous weaponry
The technology and mechanics of unmanned flight are well understood relative to the challenges of creating a self-driving ground or naval vessel. Coupled with the supposed success of drones in counter-terrorist operations and the flexibility of an aerial platform, it is likely that the first autonomous weapon will deliver its payload from the sky. The rapid advances of the X-47B programme and its success in autonomously completing even the hardest manoeuvres demonstrates that the age of autonomous armed aircraft is rapidly approaching.

 

MANTIS

Manufacturer: BAE Systems (UK)
Status: Demonstration only, unarmed

What is it?
The Mantis UCAV is another demonstration model, developed by BAE Systems for the UK’s Ministry of Defence. With a wingspan of 65ft, Mantis is roughly the same size as the Reaper, and can operate for up to 36 hours.

According to the manufacturer, its current high levels of autonomy demonstrate that the “operator foot print is very low compared to other systems in its class”. Apart from being able to calculate its own flight path and relay notable surveillance information from battlefields (like the deployments of troops) or disaster sites, Mantis is also able to perform diagnostics on itself and, if necessary, adjust electronics.

Implications for autonomous weaponry
Mantis advanced autonomous capabilities are claimed to be reliable even under adverse weather conditions. The findings of this programme will provide learnings applicable to the Telemos programmes, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) planned to be jointly developed by the UK and France.

As with the X-47B, another notable factor is the rapidity with which the Mantis has been developed. The model didn’t even exist until late 2007, but it completed its first self-piloted flight in 2009.

 

TARANIS

Manufacturer: BAE Systems (UK)
Status: Demonstration only, unarmed

What is it?
Another UCAV prototype from the BAE Systems hangar, Taranis is designed as a stealth aircraft with intercontinental range. It is designed to investigate whether stealth UCAVs are capable of executing precision strikes. According to BAE, Taranis is in development to “fend off hostile attack” and to deploy weapons “deep in enemy territory and relay intelligence information”. It completed its first flight in February 2014.

Even though Taranis features a high degree of autonomy, BAE Systems insists that “at all times, Taranis will be under the control of a highly-trained ground crew” and ground-based operators will supervise the verification and execution of strikes. This claim, however, is incompatible with Taranis’ stealth capabilities: to stay “in the loop”, a human operator on the ground needs to communicate with the aircraft, emitting a signal detectable by the enemy.

Implications for autonomous weaponry
The prototype will give the UK’s Ministry of Defence a wealth of evidence on the potential capabilities of this class of drones, particularly with regards to long-range strike operations. And even though BAE Systems insists that there will always be a human in the loop, the mere fact that autonomous elements have been implemented – and tested – in Taranis, could indicate the future direction of BAE’s developments.

 

HARPY

Manufacturer: Israel Aerospace Industries (Israel)
Status: Operational; reportedly in the arsenals of Chile, China, India, Israel, South Korea and TurkeyHarpy

What is it?
The IAI Harpy is a small Israeli-made ‘Fire-and-Forget’ combat drone or loitering missile, carrying a 70lb explosive warhead and featuring high levels of autonomy. It is designed to loiter over battlefields looking for enemy radar systems. Once a radar matching its parameters is detected, it plunges into it and detonates its warhead. It has a range of 311 miles and can operate day and night, in all weather conditions.

Implications for autonomous weaponry
HARPY is arguably the first autonomous combat air vehicle, albeit one with a very specific battlefield role. The fact that it has been delivered to a number of client states confirms that militaries are more than keen on incorporating autonomous weapons systems into their fleets.

 

ON THE GROUND 

IRON DOME

Manufacturer: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems (Israel)
Status: In operation; used by Israel and Singapore

What is it?
Iron Dome is an Israeli antimissile system, which is able to automatically intercept and destroy incoming missiles. The system consists of a radar, a control system and three launchers with 20 interceptor missiles each. Once Iron Dome detects a threat, it alerts its operator who immediately has to take a decision to engage the missile. However, due to the high cost of missiles (about £60,000 each), Iron Dome is primarily intended to intercept missiles aimed at populated areas.

In April 2011 the Iron Dome became battle-proven after it successfully shot down several Grad rockets that were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. While Israel has high claims about the system’s effectiveness, it has been sharply challenged by leading experts.

Implications for autonomous weaponry
Because of the nature of the threats it seeks to counter, Iron Dome’s operators only have a few seconds to authorise the system to fire. While the system is still technically controlled with a human in the loop, the level of control is so limited that it could be considered more autonomous than not – which is potentially a signpost for future weapons systems.

 

MANTIS AIR DEFENCE SYSTEM

Manufacturer: Rheinmetall (Germany)
Status: In operation; used by German Air Force

What is it?
Similar to Israel’s Iron Dome (but unrelated to the BAE Mantis drone), Germany’s MANTIS air defence system is designed to shield military targets as well as civilian areas from incoming missiles. It has been deployed to defend the German army’s forces in Afghanistan since 2012. With its swivelling base, MANTIS can identify possible threats up to 1.8 miles away and immediately destroy the threat with any of its six computer-guided 35mm guns.

Implications for autonomous weaponry
MANTIS is an a so-called “open architecture design”, a design that can be modified to show off different new features or carry different weapons, gives this type of C-RAM more flexibility than any other system to date.

 

SGR-A1 SENTRY GUN

Manufacturer: Samsung Techwin (South Korea)
Status: Previously used to patrol the demilitarised zone at the South and North Korea border

What is it?
The SGR-A1 is an all-weather, stationary robotic sentry gun, developed by Samsung Techwin in South Korea. It can carry several small arms, including a light machine gun or launchers dispensing rubber rounds or tear gas. The system can autonomously identify, track and engage – the latter under the control of a human operator – multiple moving targets that are up to two miles away. However, the SGR-A1 is also said to have the option to shoot at targets on its own.

The system’s purpose was to decrease the number of human soldiers needed to patrol the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. Since any person entering the DMZ is considered an enemy, SGR-A1 has, as of yet, not learnt how to distinguish between civilians and combatants – a crucial criterion for weapons to comply with the rules of war.

Implications for autonomous weaponry
The fact that SGR-A1 is incapable of distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants is extremely worrying and could pose a severe threat to civilians outside clear-cut areas like DMZs. The development of reliable discrimination capabilities for automated targeting systems is a hard problem in artificial intelligence that is not likely to be solved any time soon.

 

ATLAS

Manufacturer: Boston Dynamics (USA)
Status: In development

What is it?
ATLAS is one of the most advanced humanoid robots in existence, brought to life by the engineers of Boston Dynamics, one of Google’s latest acquisitions. Made of aircraft-grade aluminium and titanium, ATLAS stands six feet tall and is capable of using tools designed for human hands.

With ATLAS, developers have made gigantic progress in terms of stability and balance, as can be seen in the video above. Yet the same robots’ performance in the recent DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials – they moved excruciatingly slowly, fumbled and missed while attempting tasks, and constantly fell over – show that an autonomous humanoid capable of agile movement in a wide variety of situations and tasks is far from being realised.

The idea for ATLAS came from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, when a robot capable of accessing complex areas and gripping conventional tools could have significantly improved emergency services within the reactors without risking human lives.

Implications for autonomous weaponry

Even though the Department of Defense insists that ATLAS is intended for disaster relief – and it obviously is not ready even for that role, let alone for replacing soldiers on the battlefield – the fact remains that if a humanoid robot could be developed that could use human tools and move around in complex terrain with human levels of agility and performance, putting infantry weapons into its “hands” would instantly create an armed autonomous robot. More realistically, the technology of ATLAS could be incorporated into robots designed specifically for combat, which might have weapons and other military tools built in.

 

LS3 – LEGGED SQUAD SUPPORT SYSTEMS

Manufacturer: Boston Dynamics (USA)
Status: In development

What is it?
As the next stage in the evolution of “BigDog“, LS3 is a quadruped robot bearing more similarities to a four-legged spider than to a dog, is Boston Dynamic’s multipurpose “pack mule”, funded by DARPA, the US Marine Corps and the US Army. It is intended to assist soldiers carrying heavy loads up to 400lbs – more than its own body weight – on flat terrain. Videos show LS3 climbing slopes up to 35 degrees, stumbling across rubble, crossing muddy hiking trails and waddling through both snow and water. (It is unclear whether LS3 enjoys trips to the beach as much as its predecessor.)

While still under human control, engineers plan to improve automated features, such as the ability to follow a soldier, navigate itself to pre-defined coordinates and the ability to get up without help after a fall.

Implications for autonomous weaponry
LS3’s improvements in terms of stability and its ability to navigate to rough terrain are ground-breaking advances in land-based robotics allowing systems to access areas usually reserved for human feet.

 

WILDCAT

Manufacturer: Boston Dynamics (USA)
Status: In development

What is it?
Another four-legged robot born in the labs of Boston Dynamics, WildCat is the DARPA-funded next generation version of the company’s Cheetah – the fastest robot in the world, clocking in at 29mph. Unlike Cheetah, WildCat  can move rapidly without a tether.

Implications for autonomous weaponry
While it is unlikely that we will see robots chasing combatants down the battlefield any time soon (or ever), the development of robots like WildCat prove scientists’ ability to create fluid motions, capable of both speed, balance and precision in navigation.

 

AT SEA

PHALANX CLOSE-IN WEAPON SYSTEM (CIWS)

Manufacturer: Raytheon (USA)
Status: In operation; reportedly used by Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Greece, Egypt, Israel, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Turkey, Taiwan, UK, USA

What is it?
Only one of many sea-based Close-In Weapon Systems (CIWS) designed to protect warships from enemy aircraft and missiles, Raytheon’s Phalanx is a veteran automatic weapons system that has been in use since the 1980s. The self-contained system mounts a rapid-fire 20mm cannon on a rotating base and can automatically search for, detect, evaluate and engage high-speed targets such as anti-ship missiles.

SeaRAM, which Raytheon describes as an “affordable capability upgrade” to Phalanx, replaces the 20mm gun system with an 11-shot Rolling Airframe Missile launcher assembly. These interceptor missiles are able to engage incoming missiles at longer range.

Both Phalanx and SeaRAM have all technical capabilities needed for fully autonomous operation or for either human-supervised (“on the loop”) or human-controlled (“in the loop”) operation. Due to the high speed of incoming missiles, autonomy may be required in some situations.

Implications for autonomous weaponry
Unlike many of the systems on this list, Phalanx has actually been used in combat and (along with similar European, Russian and Chinese-made systems) is in active service aboard naval vessels worldwide. They constitute autonomous weapons in a very real sense, but their purely defensive nature suggests they might be considered an exceptional case. This would complicate the negotiation of an autonomous weapons treaty and require careful definitions and clarity about where to draw the line between what is forbidden and what is allowed. Yet there is no reason to believe that a suitable agreement could not be reached.

 

AEGIS COMBAT SYSTEM

Manufacturer: Lockheed Martin (USA)
Status: In operation; reportedly used by Australia, Japan, Norway, Republic of Korea, Spain, USA

What is it?
Another veteran piece of equipment, the Aegis Combat System was first deployed by the US Navy over 40 years ago. As one of the most advanced naval defence systems, it can at the same time track and attack ships, submarines and land targets, while also defend from aircraft and incoming missiles. It evaluates incoming threats and relays information to an operator, who then decides whether any further action is necessary. In addition, the system has a fully autonomous capability: under severe combat conditions it is very likely that this so-called “casualty mode” would be activated.

Aegis played a crucial role in one of the deadliest cases of mistaken identity in military history, when the system assessed Iran Air Flight 655 to be an “enemy” over Iranian airspace. The crew on board the USS Vincennes trusted the system and authorised it to fire. The resulting missile strike killed all 290 passengers – including 66 children.

Implications for autonomous weaponry
Fatal incidents such as Iran Air Flight 655 should raise concerns over the reliability of automated systems as well as questions about their inherent consequences on human behaviour. Despite high rates of accuracy, moving towards a scenario in which soldiers have more faith in their weapons’ evaluations rather than their own judgment could lead to a problematic turn in procedures.

 

 

The challenge in keeping an eye on the development of autonomous robotics that might, one day, have military applications is the separate development of components. It is unlikely that a vast number engineers are working on killing machines per se. It is the development and combination of different components that may lead to the creation of a new generation of weapons that are operating in a previously unseen accountability vacuum.

And while it is unlikely that killer robots will join the world’s armies imminently, it is probably still advisable to take C3PO’s advice from 1980: You know better than to trust a strange computer.

 

Read more about AOAV’s policy on autonomous weapons systems.

AOAV is a member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

 

Thanks to Mark Gubrud of ICRAC for technical review of this article.


AOAV is working to reduce armed violence - please help us by sharing our work: