Defence sees future for robots in warzones

Entertainers and writers have never been short of producing fictional accounts of rogue robots — from the killing machine that is The Terminator to the robot army of I, Robot.

But how far off are we from seeing these type of robots take the leap from the big screen to a seat beside us?

Several decades away, according to Stephen Quinn, chief land operations division, Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Department of Defence, with ethical issues playing a significant role in holding back the development of weaponised robots which are capable of thinking for themselves.

Read the first part of this article which looks at robot ethics.

Quinn told Computerworld Australia a situation where a robot is in a combat role and able to make its own decision on whether to open fire is a far off reality.

“Do I see a time in the future when a robot will make a decision to shoot or not shoot? The answer is no. I don’t believe that I’ll see that in my lifetime or my children’s lifetime — maybe my grandchildren's [lifetime] as well,” he says.

“It’s one thing to have the technological capability to do that sort of thing, it’s quite another thing to address all the legal ramifications of a man in the loop and a decision being taken relative to the application of what could be construed as lethal force.”

Quinn said Australia is not currently using robots to fire weapons and Defence robots are always controlled by an operator.

Publicly, the Department of Defence has not hinted at any plans to acquire autonomous weapons systems either. In its 2012 Defence Capability Plan (DCP), which provides information on proposed major capital equipment acquisitions under government consideration for the next four years, no autonomous weapons systems are listed.

However, the DCP also states in the publication information in the DCP “does not include a small number of classified or sensitive proposals”.

The role of ethics

Quinn believes it will be ethics that drives future robot development.

“It’s my view … that the ethics of robotics will very sensibly delay the technologies of robotics, particularly relative to weaponisation…

“On a personal basis, I think the ethics should drive policy and I think the way that policy would be expected to operate in the Australian context, relative to Australian forces, is that there is a place for autonomy. [But] there is no place for autonomy relative to weapons release in land robotics.”

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Australian Defence’s involvement with robots

Australia’s involvement with robots centres around countering explosive devices. These robots are operated by a member of Defence at a distance from the explosive device in situations where human soldiers may be harmed.

“An example would be there might be an unexploded bomb where the triggering devices of the bomb aren’t necessarily known … in which case you would send a robot forward with the appropriate tools on board to perhaps pull the device,” Quinn says.

“Alternatively you may be able to disarm the device by firing a shot into an initiating mechanism or something like that.”

Australia is currently using these robots in Afghanistan, but would also use them domestically in bomb disposal tasks, Quinn says. For example, an explosive device which was discovered on a farm could be approached with a robot.

While Australia does not currently own any autonomous robots which can fire weapons, Quinn says we have looked at doing this.

“There’s other work that’s being done and where robotics have been looked at and they’ve looked at weaponising those robots and all the rest of it, and then have turned around and said ‘right, we can’t get through the ethical and legal issues on this, so it’s an application that we can’t apply’,” he says.

Defence spending on robotics

Quinn says he is unsure exactly how much the Department of Defence spends on robotics research a year, but says it is “certainly not hundreds of millions”.

“The amount of money that’s been applied on an SMT basis, I’d say, is staggeringly small, relative to Defence,” Quinn says.

Quinn expects Defence spending to increase in the future, but says he doesn’t see any requirement for it to increase “by a lot”, with most of the robotics research around mathematical algorithms, logic work and computational work.

Some of Defence’s spending — $1 million — has previously been put towards a robotics competition, MAGIC 2010. The Multi Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge (MAGIC) was jointly sponsored by the Australian and US Departments of Defence, with the US Department of Defence contributing several millions to the competition.

The challenge required competitors to demonstrate the use of multi-vehicle robotic teams, with the robots required to execute an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission in a dynamic urban environment.

Quinn, who was a judge at the competition, says the aim of the competition was to change the robot paradigm of ‘one operator, one robot’ and to develop a system where one operator could control several robots at the same time.

“If you imagine a swarm of robots — it would be moving down a road, it would have various sensors on board detecting where there were explosives or wires … and saving our soldiers from doing it,” he says.

Thomas Br?unl, professor at the University of Western Australia, was a team leader in the Australian team, which comprised members from the University of Western Australia; Flinders University; Edith Cowan University; Thales Australia; and ILLIARC.

The Australian team had seven robots co-operating with each other.

“The basic idea is for the robots to go out in an unknown environment, find their way around, map the area and while they’re driving around create a map of the area and send it back to a base station,” he says.

With the military sponsorship of the competition signally their intention to sink funds into future robotics development in this area, Br?unl believes the robots which were used in the competition are a long way away from being used in a military application. He says we are at least 20 years off these types of robots being used.

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However, Robert Sparrow, associate professor, school of philosophical, historical and international studies at Monash University, has urged engineers not to take part in robotics research which uses military funding, such as MAGIC 2010.

“Ethics isn’t just a matter of regulation. It’s a matter of right and wrong and my argument is that engineers should think about whether they really want to be working on these systems that are likely to make future wars more likely,” he says.

However, Br?unl has dismissed the suggestion that being involved with competitions like MAGIC 2010 is ethically wrong.

“I wouldn’t see this as a direct link with a Defence application of mobile robots,” he says.

“There have been a number of other competitions funded by Defence in the past. I don’t think many people would argue that this is something that’s directly being used by Defence.”

The future of Defence robots

Autonomous robots are set to have a place in the Defence portfolio in situations where robots are able to make their own decisions, but not in firing situations.

Quinn says robotics research around the world is currently looking at developing robots which are “close to being autonomous” where robots will be able to communicate with each other.

“They have a capability to put sensors onto robots and move them forward — like a camera. They could be used to put a robot out to look around a corner, instead of sending a soldier out,” Quinn says.

“You could use them for explosives detection. You could use them for searching underneath vehicles — it’s really up to your imagination. There are quite a number of robots — a large number of robots — being used in that way in Afghanistan.”

However, he says the robots will always be operated by human personnel.

Quinn says Australia is also interested in robotic haptics, which would give robots a sense of touch to allow them to decipher situations where they need to determine what they are touching.

“When you pick up a glass of water or a sponge, your hand tells the difference. Both of them hold water but they’re different and they would feel different to you. What haptics is if you’re moving a robot, transmitting those sensors to your fingers as you move your hand [and] a robot [would] follow it,” Quinn says.

“If a robot’s moving down the road, how does it tell whether the puddle it’s about to go through is a quarter of an inch deep or 10 feet deep? You can tell because you’ve been trained to do it all your life — a robot can’t. It’s things like that that are very difficult with robotics.”

Quinn says robotics research in other areas could also have applications for the military environment. For example, he says work being carried out at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at Sydney University, which looks at the application of robotics in underground environments, can be transferred into Defence applications.

The real focus for military applications, though, is clearly increased autonomy.

“As we move into the future I think autonomous robots will save lives. Even such things as if you were trying to secure a position and you needed to place a sentry in a position that was particularly exposed and it was essential that you did this, would you sooner have a robot sitting there with a camera scanning around and transmitting data back or place a soldier in the danger of being out there?” he says.

“Common sense would dictate you put the robot out there.”

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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