Armor: Droids You Don’t Want To Encounter

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October 30, 2021: This year Israel introduced two new armed UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles). In June there was the 6x6 wheeled Jaguar, a 1.5-ton armored vehicle the size of an SUV armed with a remotely controlled 7.62mm machine-gun. In September came the 4x4 armored Rex Mk II, a larger version of the earlier Rex that can carry 1.3 tons of supplies or stretcher casualties through an active combat zone where delivering supplies is too dangerous for manned vehicles. Rex II is armed with a 7.62mm or 12.7mm machine-gun. Rex II and Jaguar have more capable sensors and self-driving software. Both are supervised by a remote human operator and both can be programmed to fire autonomously in certain situations. Both are equipped to shut down classified sensors if immobilized or in danger of being captured. In those situations, coordinates are broadcast to the operator who can call in an airstrike or artillery fire to destroy the vehicle. Jaguar can self-destruct in an emergency.

Both vehicles carry a lightweight radar that enables the vehicle to navigate in fog, dust storms or other reduced-visibility situations. Jaguar is designed for patrol duties and its sensors can identify a human 1,200 meters distant in daylight and 800 meters at night using thermal sensors. The operator has access to an onboard loudspeaker warning intruders that they have been spotted. Jaguar was designed for border patrol or security operations in general and has been successfully used along some portions of the Gaza border, especially those where foot patrols are often fired on from inside Gaza with sniper rifles, machine-guns, or rockets. Jaguar uses a quiet electric motor that also generates less heat in case intruders are using heat sensing devices to watch for patrols or vehicles using internal combustion engines.

These two new UGV designs are not “unexpected breakthrough” technology but the result of decades of work that has produced many useful UGV designs. Rex II and Jaguar are another step in a long line of evolutionary designs.

The original Rex appeared in 2012 to accompany troops and carry 200 kg (440 pounds) of equipment soldiers would otherwise have to carry themselves. What was impressive about the earlier Rex was its self-driving capability, which can automatically follow one of the troops who seeks the most traversable path for the vehicle and, if needed, another Rex following behind the first one. Such “robotic mules” have been developed for over a decade but were never capable enough to meet soldier needs and expectations. Rex was capable enough and that combination of sensors and software was further enhanced in Jaguar and Rex II. All three vehicles were developed by IAI, a major Israeli defense firm. This meant successful sensors and software could readily be used in later designs or older vehicles in need of an update. All three vehicles are battery powered with both Rex vehicles using a hybrid electric motor. All three vehicles can operate for long periods before needing a recharge or refueling. The both Rex models can operate 72 hours between recharges while Jaguar can operate for 12 hours before needing a recharge.

The Rex II and Jaguar are not revolutionary, but evolutionary. You could see it coming since the late 1990s when Israel began developing these autonomous vehicles.

For example, in 2016 RoBattle, a seven-ton UGV that can carry up to three tons of sensors, weapons and other accessories (like robotic arms) appeared. RoBattle is a 6x6 vehicle with independent suspension so that it can move off-road with nearly as much agility as a tracked vehicle. RoBattle is designed to be equipped with numerous combinations of accessories designed to be quickly added or removed. Like earlier UGVs, RoBattle can patrol roads or cross-country or remain unattended for up to twelve hours at a time in sentinel or ambush mode. RoBattle takes advantage of the development of better vehicle navigation sensors that enables it to not only move autonomously on roads but also off-road. Obstacles are automatically avoided or a human operator is alerted to intervene remotely for unusual situations (like an obstacle difficult to get over or around or being fired on).

A decade earlier there was the 2006 AvantGuard. It was a robotic vehicle based on the two-seater all-terrain "TomCar." AvantGuard used sensors and software that enabled it to patrol along planned routes, and was capable of some cross-country operation as well. The designers knew that improved sensors, software, and computers would improve capabilities. The AvantGuard mounted a remote-controlled gun turret equipped with a 7.62mm machine-gun. The vehicle had digital cameras facing every direction, and used pattern recognition to identify potential threats, like people sneaking around where they are not supposed to be, or obstacles on the road. The idea was that a pair of human operators could control a dozen or more AvantGuard vehicles. This system was particularly effective at night, because it had night vision and moved quietly. Weighing only 1.3 tons, the AvantGuard was protected against rifle fire and fragments from shells and smaller roadside bombs. AvantGuard proved adequate for guarding industrial parks, but not the vast stretches of Negev desert, along the border with Gaza. Too many things could go wrong out in the desert (obstacles in the road, hostile action) that AvantGuard could not handle.

All this goes back to the late 1990s when the U.S. Department of Defense began developing the four wheeled, 1.6-ton MDARS (Mobile Detection Assessment and Response System) robotic vehicles for guard duty. Israeli firms were working along the same lines but MDARS was one of the first of these vehicles to get a lot of publicity. With a top speed of 32 kilometers an hour and able to operate 16 hours without refueling, the vehicle contained radar (LIDAR) and 3-D visual sensors that enable it to avoid obstacles and identify whatever it encounters. One MDARS vehicle costing about $800,000, depending on sensors installed, could do the work at half the cost of previous, non-mobile security systems. MDARS sensors and software could identify a variety of local animals (usually coyotes, deer, or dogs) and birds it is likely to encounter within a rural facility. When it detected an unauthorized human, it alerted its human controller, who checked the real-time video feed and acted as needed. After a decade or so MDARS sensors were able to identify individuals 200 meters away. MDARS is unarmed, although it could easily be equipped with weapons. In the U.S. potential legal, media and political problems discourage this. But there’s much less opposition to unarmed vehicles. As sensors and autonomous driving technology keeps improving so does the effectiveness, value, and acceptability of these vehicles. MDARS is part of a trend. Since 2001 the U.S. Army has bought thousands of UGVs but most of these were more like radio-controlled cars and trucks which have been sold as toys for decades. Indeed, when the troops were short of army issued robots, they filled the gap with many of the larger radio-controlled toy trucks. Efforts to create UGVs that can operate more independently have moved along very slowly. MDARS was in development for most of the 1990s and only began to perform guard duties effectively in 2004. MDARS was not alone and other nations have developed similar vehicles. Israel has been working hard trying to get an autonomous battle droid into action.

Israel wanted to use MDARS type vehicles in combat zones and that is what eventually produced RoBattle. Some existing weapons are easy to install in RoBattle. The best fit was a RWS (Remote Weapon Systems) turret. These devices initially allowed an operator inside the vehicle to control the gun and its sensors, but later allowed the gun to be operated by a remote human operator or even by software. The RWS was a very popular weapon with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. After 2001 the U.S. bought over 10,000 RWS and upgraded thousands later as new features were developed. There have been constant upgrades to American RWS turrets. For example, there was the addition of a green laser, which can temporarily blind people. Such lasers have long been used to stop drivers who keep coming at checkpoints despite other signals to stop. Used in an RWS, it enables the RWS operator to flash suspicious people with the blinding light, rather than opening fire with the weapon. Another upgrade was an IR Pointer, which, at night, enabled the RWS operator to put a light, visible only to those using night-vision equipment, on something suspicious or otherwise important. Larger RWS models have also been equipped with a Javelin missile launcher. The RWS was always seen as a key element in the development of remotely controlled, or autonomous, armored vehicles. Since 2001 the main RWS supplier for the U.S. Army has been the Norwegian firm Kongsberg.

MDARS and AvantGuard were followed in 2008 by Guardium, which built on AvantGuard tech and used the same TomCar vehicle with a remote-control turret. Guardium has better sensors and software. Guardium was pitched as "smart" enough to be used in urban areas, and to serve as an emergency response vehicle. That is, these would be stationed along isolated stretches of border, ready to drive off to deal with any terrorists who had gotten through the fence. The Guardium would thus arrive before a human quick reaction team, which would be stationed farther away.

Other nations have been developing their own armed UGVs but none were able to match the progress the Israelis achieved because their borders and troops were under constant attack and successful UGVs were quickly put to the test in a combat zone. Russia, the United States, South Korea, and a few other countries were also developing UGVs but many ended up buying the latest Israeli model. Chinese manufacturers have recently been offering UGVs.

 


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