When you mention the military application of Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) people tend to generate their own ideas and sense of what the technology is and its potential uses.
Films such as Fritz Lang’s ground-breaking ‘Metropolis’ to the dystopian thriller of ‘The Terminator’ robots have entered our psyche and pop culture somewhere between benign and terrifying. The reality is very far from these Hollywood depictions.
The word ‘Robot’ was first used in a 1920 play by Czech playwright, novelist and journalist Karel Čapek, who introduced it in his play, R.U.R., or Rossum's Universal Robots. Derived from an old Slavonic word ‘robota’ it described a life of servitude or forced labour for the serfs and peasantry of central Europe.
Eighty years later and the term has long since left the theatres and science fiction novels and we have robots making our cars, vacuum cleaning our houses and assisting in complex medical procedures. So, in some areas, what was once the domain of science fiction is now science fact.
However, the truth surrounding this ground-breaking technology and its implementation is one of careful development, inspiration and unforeseen opportunities.
The UK Armed Forces have always embraced opportunities to use technology to enable and enhance the defence of the country, and with our colleagues in the private sector the UK Government is on the way to utilise the potential that robotics can provide in this area.
Most people are aware of the use of large drones which provide defensive and offensive capability in the air. Similar developments which use remotely controlled weapon systems are now being trialled on ground platforms in the new Human Machine Teaming (HMT) Project.
The most important element of this project are our human soldiers."
The Project, commissioned by Future Force Development (FFD), Army Headquarters, for delivery by the Expeditionary Robotics Centre of Expertise (ERCoE), will be looking to enhance capability by generating greater capacity through reducing the time taken to react whilst reducing risk to personnel.
Importantly, these enhanced capabilities remain under the control of a human operator; in the same way that our current drones are operated today.
The most important element of this project are our human soldiers. The project places emphasis on learning how machines will work alongside humans to make our teams much more capable while keeping our service personnel safe.
To do this there are ongoing trials of self-driving vehicles that allow our soldiers to carry more equipment to the fight and importantly extract any casualties back to where they can get help. We are also investigating self-driving vehicles that can spot threats further out using advanced camera systems.
With the end goal of rapidly fielding operational advantage to the Field Army the HMT initiative will deliver an enhanced deployable light Brigade Combat Team which could be rapidly scaled up across the whole Army.
As to when these systems may enter service? Soon, is the short answer. The more mature systems will be fielded this year with more complex systems following soon after. One of the main considerations is ensuring these systems are useful to soldiers and they are not presenting them with problems down-the-line.
Secondly, the need to ensure these systems operate in an ethical and safe way, so a major part of the Project will be working with the Military Regulators to demonstrate how these systems are going to behave and that means developing new tests to assess the technology.
What we are not going to see is autonomous un-crewed systems roaming the battlefield doing what they want.
The injection of robotics into the Army is likely to be relatively basic. However, with every test conducted, every partnership built, and every interaction had with soldiers, the Human Machine Teams will become better.
The defence of the UK against future adversaries requires an innovative and agile approach. As technologies present themselves the military will continue to work with industry to assess, develop and integrate these capabilities where there is a benefit.
As the UK military evolves along with the capabilities of its personnel we will better placed to defend against threats and fight the battles of the future and with the RAS technology it’s a steady evolution, not a revolution.