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The future of warfare is autonomous

A number of international organisations including Human Rights Watch, PAX, Amnesty International, and the Nobel Women’s Initiative support the campaign to stop killer robots. The effort is to get the UN to ban lethal autonomous weapons systems, or LAWS. These kind of robots will use artificial intelligence to pick and eliminate human targets, without a human operator in the loop giving the kill command. In a battlefield, they will be merciless killing machines. Defence agencies, weapon manufacturing companies and academic institutions around the world are researching multiple ways in which to integrate robotics into the battlefield. There is no requirement for developing pathbreaking new technologies to realise the autonomous war machines of the future, it is sufficient to integrate the existing technologies. The roadblocks for weapons manufacturers is not the technology itself, but the ethical use of it, as well as sufficiently securing the systems and platforms that will drive the machines. Even if countries comply to any bans on LAWS, there is still the option to keep a human operator in the loop for killer machines, and allowing robotic vehicles to take over the tasks that are hazardous to human life. We take a peek into what the future battlefield would look like.

Image: Lockheed Martin Skunk Works


One of the tactical advantages of allowing the machines to think, is that the cognitive burden on humans is reduced. At least in the short term future, humans will still be involved in the operations, working remotely through a command and control centre, and some ground troops will still occupy the battlefield. Although humans remotely controlling robots currently perform better on short runs, AI can consistently maintain a particular level of performance, and do not tire out no matter how long the mission lasts. Autonomous tanks will be right at the heart of the battle. The tanks would be supported by other autonomous ground and air vehicles to provide perimeter defence. 

An artist’s concept of a battlefield in the future. Image: BAE Systems.

One of the support vehicles being developed by BAE systems is the Ironclad. An Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV), the Ironclad can be outfitted to perform a variety of tasks, including bomb disposal, recon, medical evacuation, and to take down drones. The Ironclad has a range of 50 kilometers, is small enough to navigate in urban environments, and has enough armour to protect itself against explosives and small arms fire.

The Ironclad in different configurations. Image: BAE Systems.

The Ripsaw by Howe and Howe is one of the fastest dual track vehicles ever built. A light version of the vehicle can accelerate from 0 to 105 kilometers per hour in 3.5 seconds. The Ripsaw can be used for perimeter defense, bomb disposal, patrolling and surveillance. The vehicle is combat ready, and can be equipped with a self loading gun that can switch rapidly between lethal and non lethal ammunition. There is actually a luxury variant of the Ripsaw available, for those looking to pick one of these up.

The Ripsaw. Image: Howe and Howe.

Howe and Howe has also developed a variant of the Ripsaw that has demonstrated the ferrying of 450 kg of supplies through about 96 kilometers of swampy and jungle terrain. Such a “pack bot” is one of the types of robots that can accompany soldiers in future battles. Boston Dynamics also developed a pack bot, called BigDog. The robot could move at 10 kilometers an hour, and carry up to 150 kg of supplies. The development was funded by DARPA, but BigDog was considered too loud to be actually used in combat situations.

A much smaller UGV for recon, surveillance and target acquisition is the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS) platform by QinetiQ. The robots can actually stand in the place of actual soldiers, and are equipped with motion sensors, and night vision cameras. There is also a loudspeaker with a siren, which can be used in urban areas for crowd dispersion. The MAARS platform can be equipped with weapons.

The MAARS platform. Image: QinetiQ

The Autonomous Mobility Applique System (AMAS) are autonomous vehicles from Lockheed Martin that can provide logistics support to armies. Essentially, they are autonomous army trucks that can move in convoys, snake through urban environments and rural roads. The trucks can automatically work their way around obstacles, and move in various traffic situations. Each truck can be configured to be a leader or a follower.


Last month, The Huffington Post published excerpts from leaked Pentagon documents that showed Russian nuclear capabilities. The documents confirmed the existence of a Russian autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) or unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV). The vehicle is called Kanyon, and is described as the “doomsday torpedo“. Kanyon has a range of almost 10,000 kilometers, can dive upto 1000 meters underwater, and moves at a speed of 100 knots. The payload is a 100 megaton thermonuclear bomb. The vehicle is part of Russia’s secret arsenal, and has the capabilities of completely taking down cities or naval bases along a coastline.

An artist’s rendering of Kanyon. Image: Freebeacon.

The advantage with autonomous submarines is that they can maintain a presence continuously for months, even years. Using underwater currents to their advantage, can reduce the load on the electric batteries. The submarines are capable of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions over incredibly long ranges. In June last year, Boeing began testing an extra large UUV in the open seas. The vehicle, known as the Echo Voyager, was being put through its paces to prepare for a long range endurance run. From a technology perspective, the autonomy systems on board are critical, as the submarine cannot call back to satellites while on long range missions.

The Echo Voyager. Image: Boeing.

The Marlin AUV from Lockheed Martin specialises in underwater inspections and surveys. There are sensors located below the craft that can capture high resolution 3D maps of subsea environments. The turnaround time is just a few hours. The craft is just 3 meters long, and can nimbly manoeuvre past underwater obstacles. The vehicle can dive up to 300 metres underwater, and safely provide a viewing window in difficult to reach areas. Apart from military use, the submarine can also be used by energy and communications companies for inspecting their underwater assets.

The Marlin. Image: Lockheed Martin.

The Proteus II submarine by Bluefin Robotics is a unique vehicle that can be operated in both unmanned and manned configurations. The submarine can be used to deliver supplies, take down mines, outfitted with sensors, or ferry up to six personnel. Proteus II can dive upto a depth of 60 metres in the unmanned mode, and 45 metres in the manned mode. The cargo capacity is about 1600 kg. The vehicle is powered by a lithium polymer battery and has a top speed of about 10 knots. The versatile submarine can also be deployed to maintain or install equipment along the sea bed. Proteus II can also be equipped with torpedoes.

The Proteus II. Image: Battelle.

There are autonomous vehicles for the surface as well. Last month, DARPA finished testing a technology demonstration vehicle known as the Sea Hunter. The vehicle is nuclear powered, and can remain in the sea for months at a time. The Sea Hunter is purpose built to track diesel electric submarines, and so is an antisubmarine drone. To build the vehicle, the engineering team had to entirely rethink how a ship is designed, considering that humans are never meant to get on board during the regular operations. Sea Hunter is designed for long range and long duration missions, and has the capability to autonomously comply with international maritime laws and safe navigation conventions.

The Sea Hunter. Image: DARPA.


Killer drones in the air have proven their capabilities for defense purposes, more than any type of autonomous vehicle. The Predator series of drones by General Atomics are among the most successful unmanned aerial vehicles for combat purposes around. Initially the drone was supposed to be for surveillance purposes, but was later equipped to fire missiles. The Predator XP drones can stay in the air for 35 hours and can climb up to 25,000 feet. A Predator Avenger variant being tested has a range of 18 hours, but can climb to 50,000 feet, allowing it to perform surveillance over a wider range. Lockheed Martin and Boeing are also developing aerial platforms with surveillance and strike capabilities.

The Predator C Avenger. Image: General Atomics.

The Indian Army is also developing a drone that is similar to the Predator. The DRDO, along with HAL and BEL is developing the Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon (TAPAS) platform, which was initially known as Rustom-II. The drone is designed to be used by the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force, and can potentially be equipped with weapons. The drone can be used for target acquisition, by laser tagging, or even fire its own missiles.

The TAPAS platform. Image: DRDO.

Drones can provide new capabilities to ground forces that were previously not possible. For example, Threye Interactive is a XR (AR/VR) development company that has demonstrated the use of a simple quadcopter, and a GoPro action camera to survey areas that soldiers are about to move into. The drone makes a run over the area, and soldiers back at the base can check out any unfamiliar territory and prepare for the mission. Threye used a quadcopter, but believe that the process can be speeded up by using fixed wing drones.

A high resolution 3D map of an area for use in XR applications. Image: Threye.

Last year, researchers from Georgia Tech and the Naval Postgraduate School carried out an experiment to check out what would happen if two swarms of autonomous drones had an aerial dogfight. The drones in the two swarms were identical, but each swarm used a different AI. Without a human operator, the drone swarms can perform consistently, and come up with novel approaches to complete the mission or solve a problem.  

A single Zephyr drone in flight. Image: Georgia Tech.

One of the videos that recently went viral showcased how integrating existing technologies, combined with miniaturisation can create deadly drone swarms. These quadcoptors can be deployed en masse from aeroplanes, can operate in civilian areas, and can be programmed to take out certain sections of the population with the use of explosives. The short film is titled “Slaughterbots”, and is actually a part of the campaign to ban LAWS. If you have not seen the video, check it out below.

Most of the technologies shown in the video actually already exist. MIT has developed tiny Perdix drones, which are fixed wing and not quadcopters. The US Department of Defense demonstrated a drone swarm made up of these fixed wing drones. The entire swarm behaved like a collective organism, instead of discrete components. The small, cheap drones were released from the belly of aircraft. The drones executed a series of missions before swarming around a fixed point. The Pentagon is going ahead and manufacturing fleets of these drones, but they are not weaponised… yet.

Aditya Madanapalle

Aditya Madanapalle

An avid reader of the magazine, who ended up working at Digit after studying journalism, game design and ancient runes. When not egging on arguments in the Digit forum, can be found playing with LEGO sets meant for 9 to 14-year-olds.