I Sing of MAARS and a Robot

by Chris Borgen

Defense One points to a news story in the Baghdad Post that the Iraqi Security Forces may be preparing to deploy a ground-combat robot:

Loosely dubbed Alrobot — Arabic for robot — it has four cameras, an automatic machine gun, and a launcher for Russian-made Katyusha rockets, and can be operated by laptop and radio link from a kilometer away, the [Baghdad Post] story says.

One point is important to emphasize, the Alrobot is a remotely-controlled four-wheeled drone, it is not an autonomous weapon. By contrast, an autonomous weapon would be, in the words of a recent article from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, “capable of selecting and engaging targets without human intervention.”

However, while the Alrobot would not be autonomous, Defense One also notes that it will also not be the first remotely-controlled battlefield weapon deployed in Iraq:

Back in 2007, the U.S. Army deployed three armed ground robots called the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, or SWORDS, from weapons maker Foster-Miller (now owned by Qinetiq). SWORDS basically consisted of a Foster-Miller TALON robot armed with a machine gun.

However, the SWORDS unmanned ground vehicles (UGV’s) were never used on patrol. A 2008 Wired article (to which Defense One linked) explained in an addendum:

Senior Army leadership, however, was not comfortable with sending them out to do combat missions due to safety reasons, and they are now placed in fixed positions, said Robert Quinn, vice president of Talon operations at Foster-Miller…

It seems to be a “chicken or the egg” situation for the Army, he said. The tactics, techniques and procedures for using armed ground robots have not been addressed.

But until there is an adequate number of SWORDS to train with, these issues can’t be worked out, he said.

.A successor weapons system, the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS) is currently being developed by QinetiQ. Like its predecessor, MAARS would  not be an autonomous weapon, but a remotely-controlled battlefield robot with humans making the tactical decisions. Consequently, the legal issues here would be less like the many concerns stemming from using artificial intelligence to make targeting and live-fire decisions, but rather would be similar to the legal issues arising from the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s). Possible questions would include whether the use of the cameras and other sensors on the UGV would allow its operator to adequately discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Does inserting an remotely-controlled armed robot make one more likely to use force? Under what situations would using such a system be disproportionate?

This may depend, in part, on how such systems are deployed. There could be different legal implications in using a UGV to, for example, “stand post” to guard the perimeter of a platoon that is out on patrol in a remote mountainous region as opposed to using a UGV in an urban combat situation where there are many civilians in close-quarters. The U.S. Marine Corps, for example, is considering when and how the use of weapons like MAARS would be appropriate.

For another recent post on robots and regulations, see my post from earlier this summer.


2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the interesting post. About your question on whether remote-controlled robots make one more likely to use force, the US Army War College did a study about whether using drones lowered the threshold of conflict. They found out that it did, at least in the eyes of the public. Here’s the link: http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=1289

  2. Check here to prove that you are not a robot

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