Infantry: Dumb, Dangerous and Promising

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May 5,2008: For the second time in two years, an Israeli firm has produced a robotic vehicle based on the two seater all-terrain "TomCar" vehicle. Two years ago, it was the AvantGuard. This one used sensors and software that enabled it to patrol along planned routes, and was capable of some cross country operation as well. 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 roadside bombs. AvantGuard was adequate for guarding industrial parks, but not the vast stretches of Negev desert, along the border with Gaza.

Building on the AvantGuard technology, a new firm, G-Nius, has produced the Guardium. Using the same TomCar vehicle, and remote control turret, the Guardium has better sensors and software. Guardium is 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.

Guardium is seen as preferable to an earlier proposal; placing remotely controlled turrets in isolated areas, along with security cameras. If you spot some bad guys, the remotely controlled weapon can be used. South Korea and Israel have developed their own remote control weapon systems (SGR-A1 and Samson Jr., respectively). The United States has several existing remote control turrets to choose from, and is concentrating more on the array of sensors, the eyes and ears of the weapons.

South Korea wants to use the system on it DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) border with North Korea. Israel wants to use them on the border with Gaza, which is often just an open stretch of desert. The U.S. wanted to use the systems for base defense in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. What has made these systems possible has been digital video analysis software that can detect people without human intervention. When that happens, a system operator is alerted, who decides if the person is hostile, and worth firing on.

These systems would be vulnerable to attack, which is the main reason for not using them. Unless the cameras, and other sensors (sound, heat and seismic) can pick up hostiles far enough away, the remotely controlled weapon can be destroyed, along with many of the sensors, thus blinding the operators. But there's another advantage to such systems, the operators can be anywhere on the planet. Just as with Predators, which are operated by air force personnel in the United States, no matter where the UAV is, the same can be done with the remote control weapons (usually a 7.62mm or 12.7mm machine-gun). The Samson Jr turret mounts a 12.7mm machine-gun, with an effective range of about 1,500 meters. That means that one turret will be needed for every kilometer of border fence (to provide some overlap.)

Meanwhile, both the U.S. and Israel have developed smaller armed robots. The American systems is called Swords (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detecting System). This is a 125 pound remotely controlled vehicles (they look like miniature tanks), armed with a 5.56mm machine-guns and 350 rounds of ammo). Also known as Talon IIIB, the army spent over a year testing them in the United States before sending some to Iraq last year. There they found there were many ways to mess with Swords. Many tricks didn't even damage the equipment (like having a child or woman come out and throw a towel or sheet over it).

Israel has a similar system, called Viper, that carries a 9mm machine pistol (an Uzi) and can carry explosives, along with the usual video camera and microphones. Both Swords and Viper do have their uses, like entering very dangerous situations (like a cave or building believed occupied by fanatical gunmen). The droids can also be used for guard duty in dangerous locations (where the enemy might get a shot off, or toss a grenade.) But no matter what you have the battle robots do, the mechanical grunts lack the same degree of situational awareness of a human soldier. The sensors used on droids (mainly visual and acoustic) are getting better, as is the software that can quickly evaluate what the sensors see and hear. But humans can also smell, and feel (on their skin), as well as use superior vision and hearing. Until the sensors get better, the combat robots will always be at a disadvantage. But if used with those disadvantages kept in mind, the robots do have their uses.

 


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