Infantry: Testing Another Generation Of Combat Droids

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May 13, 2015: After more a decade of development and operational use the Israeli military is moving its UGV (unmanned ground vehicles) from guard duty to the battlefield. Israeli infantry and the new “advance guard” UGVs have been training together to see exactly what works and what doesn’t. The basic idea here is to have UGVs with good enough sensors to successfully move across a battlefield in front of troops and look out for mines, roadside bombs, ambushes or any signs of the enemy at all. This gives the troops following close behind a better idea of what nasty surprises the enemy has for them and an opportunity to avoid lots of casualties and hit harder than the enemy expected.

Both Israel and the United States have already discovered that armed UGVs are not very successful on their own, but Israel believes that new designs, operating in close cooperation (as an advanced guard while moving into hostile territory) with infantry and manned armored vehicles might work well enough to justify regular use. The new UGVs are similar to the armed four wheeled vehicles Israel has been successfully using for guard duty along the Gaza and Lebanon borders. The eventual success of these UGVs encouraged trying to use them in combat.

All this began in 2006 when an Israeli firm produced a robotic vehicle based on the two seater all-terrain "TomCar." Called AvantGuard, the robotic vehicle 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 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. Several years of tweaks, upgrades and new software and sensors fixed all that.

In 2008, building on the AvantGuard technology, a new firm, G-Nius, produced the Guardium. Using the same TomCar vehicle, and a remote control turret, the 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. Guardium was 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) and both countries did install some of these turrets and still use them. Guardium proved effective along the Gaza border, where Palestinians were constantly trying to cross the border, either for economic gain or to kill Israelis. Guardium eventually got better sensors, giving it better hearing than humans and a navigation system similar to those now used by driverless cars. Guardium was so successful that it was able to use its autonomous (not always monitored by a human) mode a lot more. This was largely because of the improved sensors and software that had been improved over several decades to accurately detect what is out there.

Using armed UGVs in active combat zones showed that these systems were vulnerable to attack and interference, which are the main reasons 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. By 2009 both the U.S. and Israel had developed smaller armed robots. The American systems is called Swords (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detecting System). This is a 57 kg (125 pound) remotely controlled vehicles that looked like miniature tanks. These were 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 in 2008. 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.

The U.S. manufacturers continue to offer systems like Guardium for facility (commercial and military) security work. The U.S. is watching the Israeli Advance Guard tests with great interest.

 

 

 


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