January 2, 2021:
The U.S. Air Force is equipping its security force with a new type of security robot, one that move about on four legs. Called Vision Sixty, the 43 kg (94 pound) Q-UGVs (Quadrupedal Unmanned Ground Vehicles) are battery operated, and drain their battery after travelling about twelve kilometers (7.5 miles) before needing to return to a charging station to quickly get its batteries replenished. The charging location can be remembered, even if moved and Vision Sixty can be programmed to return whenever the charge is low and there is only enough power left to get back to a charging station. Vision Sixty can move at speeds of over two meters a second and cover a hundred meters in about 40 seconds. They can wade through water, move through weeds or a tunnel and if they fall over they can get themselves back up. Climbing up or down steps is no problem and they have been tested exploring caves or unlit mineshafts. Their primary sensor is a day/night vidcam which transmits live-video at 4G LTE speeds. Operators use either a cell-type device to control one nearby or a remote operator can handle several of them via that same link. If the Vision Sixty is working with a person, they can be given a “follow me” command and the Vision Sixty will remember their handler and automatically follow that handler. Air Force security personnel using Vision Sixty quickly came to call them dogs and use them as such during perimeter patrols. Like dogs, if intruders are spotted the handler can assign Vision Sixty to pursue one of them while the air force handler pursues another and calls for backup. Th air force is using several of the Vision Sixty droids at one of its North American air bases and will obtain more of the quadruped security droids if the security forces at the first base with them believe widespread use would be worthwhile.
Unlike wheeled or tracked UGVs, Vision Sixty does not need a lot of sensors to move about safely. Like real dogs is uses its vidcam and sensors in the bottom of its four legs to provide enough information to get around. Its software uses its vidcam to detect various types of obstacles and carry out preprogrammed movements to deal with them. Vision Sixty costs from $100,000 to $250,00 each depending on options and capabilities required. Vision Sixty can handle extreme heat and cold and move through mud and snow a real dog can handle. Vision Sixty can’t swim, but is waterproof and is easy to repair if damaged.
The manufacturer, Ghost Robotics expects to sell more Vision Sixty units to commercial than to military customers. A hundred were sold in 2020 and sales are expected to hit 250 in 2021 and much more after that if users are satisfied. The Australian Army is currently evaluating some and mining companies are eager to try Vision Sixty out in mines, while construction companies see them as a better way to patrol construction sites, especially a night in unlit areas. Fire departments can send them into burning buildings to search for survivors, and first responders to major disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes can use them to quickly scour large, obstacle filled areas to check out the damage and location of survivors. Vision Sixty can be equipped with sensors to detect certain sounds or smells and alert the nearby or remote operator.
The quadrupedal mobility system has been around for decades and in the last decade has become much more reliable and flexible. Ghost Robotics is a five-year-old company that feels it has developed the first commercially useful quadrupedal mobility capability. If it can satisfy enough customers it will sell a lot of them.
Meanwhile there is still a lot of work going on with wheeled and tracked UGVs and USVs (unmanned surface vessels), including special industrial-type UGVs for missile units that speed up the preparation of missiles for combat use. It has been found that these UGVs are more accurate in handling the missile components and lifting them into firing position. This is also safer than using troops to do it, who are slower and more prone to accidents that injure personnel and damage the missiles.
One controversial accessory is weapons. Unlike most Western nations Russia and China are not reticent about arming their UGVs and USVs. Vision Sixty could be armed but there is no demand for that yet, other than to use taser or other immobilizing devices.
China also makes no secret of its willingness to use armed UGVs operating autonomously. They have developed models that can act as stationary day and night sentinels in a combat zones. This provides a more reliable lookout to alert troops of an approaching enemy. The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that this use of UGVs works and is good for morale.
China has been working on ground combat UGVs for over a decade, based in part by the American and Israeli experience. For example, in 2018 Chinese state TV broadcast a video of a soldier operating a T-59 (clone of Russian T-55) tank remotely. This is nothing unique as China has had armored vehicles operating autonomously since at least 2013, and has been energetically applying that technology to self-driving commercial vehicles. These are being tested on public roads with the objective of wide-scale use.
What China is also doing is developing self-driving routines for combat vehicles, so that one tank with a human crew could control a large number of tanks operated by “combat AI (Artificial Intelligence)” software. There are many other possible applications and China intends to be first in this field. To that end, in 2016, the Chinese military conducted a competition between commercial, military and academic autonomous vehicle designers to see who had the most impressive designs and win a cash prize). China is known to be making much progress in AI but has not released a lot of details of how this would be applied to autonomous vehicles.
Israel was and still is a leader in AUV and ASV design and development for years, and applied the tech to vehicles offered for export. China saw Israel as the most formidable competitor in this field and has followed Israeli developments closely. This was especially the case with military and security UGVs. In mid-2016 China was particularly interested when an Israeli firm introduced yet another in a long-line of UGVs. This one was called RoBattle. It is a seven-ton vehicle that can carry up to three tons of sensors, weapons and other accessories, like robotic arms. 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 enable 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).
RoBattle is not revolutionary, but evolutionary. You could see it coming since the late 1990s. After a decade of development, in 2006 an Israeli firm produced a robotic vehicle based on the two seater all-terrain "TomCar" vehicle. Called AvantGuard, the robotic vehicle used sensors and software 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 RWS 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.
AvantGuard was 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 the 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 still in service with the Israeli military.
Other nations have been developing their own armed UGVs. In 2014 Russia joined the United States and Israel in using robotic vehicles to help guard ballistic missile bases. Before that several Russian manufacturers were offering small remotely controlled or autonomous robotic vehicles for dealing with bombs or patrolling hazardous areas and detecting radiation. These were found useful by police and military bomb disposal teams, especially when providing security around Cold War era sites that were contaminated by high radiation levels. The most widely known one in the west is Chernobyl but there are several others that were never publicized and some that were actual secrets outside Russia until the Cold War ended. Thus Russia had a major incentive to design and build devices competitive with those produced in the United States, Israel, South Korea and a few other countries. Chinese manufacturers have been offering UGVs to compete with the Israeli models, which have the advantage of being “combat proven” because of their use to patrol volatile borders (like Gaza). China has another advantage in that they will sell advanced military tech to just about anyone who can pay, if only to get the stuff some combat experience. China plays the long game and sees the point where their latest UGV tech is kept at home. This is one reason why China is putting so much effort into developing more effective AI (artificial intelligence) software. That, plus the Chinese willingness to arm UGVs and let them operate autonomously, makes future Chinese combat UGVs a scary possibility.
A successful quadrupedal UGV makes UGVs in general more attractive and another reason why UGVs are showing up more doing jobs for commercial and military organizations.