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Countries like US, Russia and china are racing to deploy ground combat robots or UGVs, and testing their effectiveness on battlefield

An unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) is a vehicle that operates while in contact with the ground and without an onboard human presence. Generally, the vehicle will have a set of sensors to observe the environment, and will either autonomously make decisions about its behavior or pass the information to a human operator at a different location who will control the vehicle through teleoperation.  There are a wide variety of UGVs in use today. Predominantly these vehicles are used to replace humans in hazardous situations, such as handling explosives and in bomb disabling vehicles, where additional strength or smaller size is needed, or where humans cannot easily go. They are also used in industries such as agriculture, mining and construction.

 

They  have been also employed for handling Covid or Coronavirus pandemic. From disinfection and street patrols to food and medicine delivery in quarantine wards, robots are being deployed at the front lines to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has claimed hundreds of lives in China. More than 30 disinfection robots designed and produced by a Shanghai enterprise have entered major hospitals in Wuhan, center of the novel coronavirus outbreak, to combat the epidemic. The white robot has a hydrogen peroxide sprayer on its “head” and nine ultraviolet lamps in its “belly,” and can perform multiple forms of disinfection in environments where humans and machines coexist, according to Pan Jing, CEO of Shanghai TMiRob, the manufacturer of the robot. Navigation technology enables the robot to avoid obstacles autonomously, Pan said.

 

For Defense foreces Semi-autonomous and autonomous unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are changing the way they operate. With increasing capabilities, UGVs are able to avoid human injury and casualty, taking charge of many dangerous, dull and dirty operations across the world. Military applications include surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition. UGVs are highly effective in naval operations, they have great importance in the help of Marine Corps combat; they can additionally avail in logistics operations on to the land and afloat.UGVs are also being developed for peacekeeping operations, ground surveillance, gatekeeper/checkpoint operations, urban street presence and to enhance police and military raids in urban settings. UGVs can “draw first fire” from insurgents — reducing military and police casualties.Furthermore, UGVs are now being used in rescue and recovery missions and were first used to find survivors following 9/11 at Ground Zero.

 

Countries like US, Russia and China are racing to deploy combat robots and drones on the battlefield and are investing in their research and development to have a military edge over other countries. Various militaries are fielding unmanned systems for surveillance, intelligence, logistics, or attack missions to make their forces or campaigns more effective.

 

The US Army, under the Combat Capabilities Development Command, has the lead in this regard and the types of unmanned ground systems under development are legion; the most recent induction for use by the field army is the QinetiQ Inc. and Pratt Miller Defense Robotic Combat Vehicle-Light, a purpose-built hybrid electric unmanned ground combat vehicle. Russia has battle-tested the Uran-9 unmanned ground combat vehicle in Syria in 2018 and formally inducted it in its ground force in 2019. The Chinese have also been keeping pace with their development of unmanned ground systems and have introduced Norinco’s Sharp Claw UGV, which was first unveiled at the Airshow China 2014 exhibition in Zhuhai, into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in April 2020. Each of these three UGVs can perform a variety of tasks — from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to fire support and even logistics delivery or casualty evacuation — within their operating parameters.

 

In India, the DRDO has developed and fielded remotely operated vehicles for several military tasks, from explosive ordnance detection and disposal to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear reconnaissance,

 

The US Air Force deployed four-legged “robot dogs” to defend its perimeters during a recent field test in Sep 2020. The “robot dogs” the Air Force was testing are called Vision 60 and were built by Ghost Robotics, and they look a bit like the villains in the “Metalhead” episode of “Black Mirror.” They’re designed to conduct remote inspection, surveillance, or mapping missions, as The Drive reports, and could be used to patrol perimeters at air bases as well. A top British intelligence expert had claimed that the US military will have more robot soldiers on the battlefield than real ones by 2025, suggesting that deadly combat robots are rapidly becoming a reality of modern day warfare.

 

According to Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, the robots will save lives: “We have to conduct battles without any contact, so that our boys do not die, and for that it is necessary to use war robots,” he said. Putin while talking to students envisioned a future for war where drones, ostensibly controlled by artificial intelligence, would fight proxy wars between countries. “When one party’s drones are destroyed by drones of another, it will have no other choice but to surrender,” he said.

 

The Chinese Army is preparing to deploy small tracked unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) armed with machine guns, night-vision, missile loaders, and cameras to launch attacks while leaving manned systems at relatively safe stand-off distances. Citing a China Central Television segment on the robots, People’s Online Daily reports that the thigh-high armed robot looks like a small assault vehicle. Target practice results showed the robot has acceptable accuracy.

 

A report from the Defence Science Board in the US concluded that there are both benefits and dire negatives in using cyborgs to fight their battles, but the country needs to act quickly if it does not want to be left behind any further. The report said “there are both substantial operational benefits and potential perils associated with its use.” Robots on the battlefield will be more efficient, result in less casualties and could ultimately be cheaper. The U.S. Army’s UGVs increasingly are capable of much greater levels of autonomy . Initially The Pentagon justified  their development with the statement that Russia and China allegedly also design ‘fast-moving, fully-autonomous killing systems’. and  US will make robots ‘not to use them’, but to know how they work and how to counter them. However, recently Army leaders say they plan to operate most of its combat formations with robotic systems functioning alongside or in tandem with manned platforms.

Future of Unmanned Ground Systems in the Operational Environment

On today’s battlefield, UGVs serve as weapons, logistic carriers, medical evacuation vehicles and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) tools. Priority technologies for  autonomous ground vehicles (PC-AGVs) include mobility, navigation, tactical behaviors, health maintenance and learning/adaptation technologies. Based on its application, unmanned ground vehicles will generally include the following components: platform, sensors, control systems, guidance interface, communication links, and systems integration features.

 

The U.S. Army’s Mad Scientist Initiative hosted the Future of Unmanned Ground Systems Webinar on August 18, 2020. It focused on observations and insights regarding Unmanned Ground System capability development and the future of these systems in the Operational Environment.

 

All countries are working on three major research areas to improve the effectiveness of robotic ground systems. These systems have been on the battlefield for 100 years but have not delivered a game changing capability. Compare this to the aircraft that from first flight to proof of concept only took 10 years to change the character of warfare. These three research focus areas are: Mobility in complex terrain; requirement outpaces what current autonomous cars are capable of, communication in a contested electromagnetic spectrum, and the ability to collaborate and coordinate with humans in the loop.

 

Rovery began the webinar and focused on unmanned ground vehicles in the international landscape. According to Rovery, “In 2019, Chinese armored units conducted high-altitude exercises with unmanned systems. The multi-day exercises used remotely operated mine-clearing robots to open routes, during surrounding fire. Images and data were transmitted back to the control center, and this information was then shared with UGVs and a swarm of quadcopters that conducted reconnaissance.” In 2020, the U.S. Army conducted its first robotic combat vehicle experiment focusing on cavalry and scout missions.

 

Rovery highlighted the use of the THeMIS (Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System) over the past five years among various countries. The UGV is designed to perform a wide range of military missions in dangerous or hard-to-reach areas. It offers enhanced safety and operational effectiveness by keeping warfighters at a safe distance from enemy attack. The vehicle can be configured for different roles, including reconnaissance, observation, target acquisition, communications relay, logistics support platform, rescue, fire-fighting, and medical evacuation (medevac). During various live military exercises, the UGV has been deployed by the British Army, U.S. Marines, the Royal Dutch Army, Latvian, and Estonian Defence Forces. Bendett continued focusing on Russia and its long-term development of UGVs and its trials over the past couple of years in Syria and where Russia will go in the future.

 

According to Bendett, “Russia’s Syria experience — and monitoring the U.S. use of unmanned systems for the past two decades — convinced the Ministry of Defense (MOD) that its forces need more expanded unmanned combat capabilities to augment existing Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) systems that allowed Russian forces to observe the battlefield in real-time”. The expanded use of artificial intelligence will be crucial to both the machines and humans on the battlefield.

 

“Another significant trend is the gradual shift from manual control over unmanned systems to a fully autonomous mode, perhaps powered by a limited artificial intelligence program. The Russian MOD has already communicated its desire to have unmanned military systems operate autonomously in a fast-paced and fast-changing combat environment,” said Bendett. Kott finished the event by concentrating on the science that drives current and future ground robotics. In a recent podcast, Kott sat down with The U.S. Army Mad Scientist Initiative and spoke about the importance of artificial intelligence. “One of the flagship programs we have is about AI and machine learning for maneuver and mobility on the battlefield. We decided to focus on maneuver and mobility because it is so important for the future of combat vehicles and creates the foundation for many other aspects of AI,” said Kott.

 

Kott highlighted the challenges that CCDC-ARL is focused on. These challenges are ground mobility and maneuver, coordination and teaming, and communications. Kott stated, “Going forward is directed by two phenomena. One is that everything becomes smart and acquires some degree of thinking ability, and the other is that everything becomes connected. This will continue to drive many developments in technology in industry and warfare.” Participants submitted questions to the panelists that expanded on some of the initial information while delving into other areas connected to the future of UGVs. Previous Mad Scientist Initiative events have focused on future learning, bioengineering, disruptive technologies, megacities, and dense urban areas and identifying other opportunities for further assessment and experimentation.

US Army deploying  Robotic Vehicles

The robot dogs — developed by Ghost Robotics as part of an Air Force Research Laboratory contract awarded back in April — were deployed last week to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada as part of an agile combat employment exercise during which airmen scrambled to secure a simulated airfield against hostile attack. The exercise, conducted by active-duty and Air National Guard airmen from across the United States, was designed to test the Air Force’s next-generation Advanced Battle Management System, “a state-of-the-art system designed to provide combatant commanders the ability to control Department of Defense assets in real-time,” according to the Air Force.

 

They’re designed to conduct remote inspection, surveillance, or mapping missions, as The Drive reports, and could be used to patrol perimeters at air bases as well. “Strategic partners can build solution-specific [Quadrupedal Unmanned Ground Vehicles] for virtually any use-case with their choice of sensors, radios and even size the robot to suit specific requirements by licensing our reference designs,” according to Ghost Robotics’ website.

 

In fiscal year 2020, the Army plans to start experimenting with a government-led Robotic Controlled Vehicles program, or RCV, Coffman said. “We’re doing these experiments to test a series of hypotheses,” he said. “I always emphasize it is an experiment. While I am an advocate, probably the No. 1 champion, that [believes] robots will change the way that we will fight combat in the future — we owe it to the Army, taxpayers, and everyone to make sure that this is a prudent step forward.” Earlier, the Army  tested the RSV concept through the Synthetic Training Environment. These virtual experiments will inform the final vehicle requirements, Coffman said.

 

“If you’re going into a … situation where it’s unknown, much better to put some type of unmanned vehicle in first and get a look around and then you can follow in with manned capability,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said during a recent meeting with reporters. The service’s RCV campaign of learning will include three live experiments between now and fiscal year 2024 that will increase in complexity and scope over time. Virtual testing will support each live event. “We’re learning lessons very, very cheap in a virtual experiment,” Wallace noted. “We can refine platform requirements and we can learn some of the lessons for the tactics, techniques and procedures … in a very cost-effective way that we then can spiral into the live” events.

 

Phase 1, a platoon-level experiment, was slated to kick off in the March-April timeframe at Fort Carson, Colorado. Surrogate RCVs that are modified M113 armored personnel carriers will be accompanied by control vehicles known as Mission Enabling Technologies Demonstrators, or MET-Ds. The MET-Ds — which are modified Bradley Fighting Vehicles — will host a variety of technologies created by Army Combat Capabilities Development Command such as sensors, autonomy and drive-by-wire kits that could be integrated onto future or legacy platforms, according to Christopher Ostrowski, associate director of experimental prototyping. Personnel in each control vehicle will manage a pair of RCVs during the event.

 

“We have taken an armored combat vehicle and turned it into a two-man crew operation, and then we have added two RCV operators to each in the back,” he said. “We’re going to exercise a range of operations to include teleoperation and autonomy via the experiment.” Someday, Strykers, joint light tactical vehicles or optionally manned fighting vehicles could serve as control vehicles. “Looking ahead to FY20, the Army’s first experiment will focus on platoon-level operations, he said. During the scenario, Soldiers operating out of “two surrogate vehicles” will control a set of robots that bare a resemblance to the M113 armored personnel carrier. “The two surrogate vehicles will have four Soldiers in the back … and there’ll be two Soldiers controlling one robot. One will be driving [the RCV] and the other will be controlling [the vehicle’s] payload.” In January, the Army announced its intention to award other transaction authority agreements to QinetiQ North America and Textron Systems to build four light and four medium prototype RCVs, respectively. The companies won a competitive downselect.

 

This  CFT is slated to house a “robot rodeo,” Coffman said. The team is asking industry partners to bring their robots so that the Army can determine, “what is in the realm of the possible. “The next generation of combat vehicles will close the last tactical mile, giving our Soldiers a position of advantage,” said Brig Gen. Ross Coffman, NGCV Cross-Functional Team director. “Our combat vehicles will have the ability to transition through those disruption zones with lethality and survivability … [and] mobility, to be able to fight the enemy on our terms, and become victorious,” Coffman said.

 

“They’re going to conduct some really rudimentary reconnaissance tasks that are fundamental to every cav scout platoon — screen, route reconnaissance, area reconnaissance — and then we’re also going to have a demonstration with a special operations unit,” Wallace said. “I can’t really get into what particular unit it is, but the special operations folks will also check to see if this technology is viable to them.” Phase 2, a company-level experiment, is slated to start in the spring of 2022. It will include four additional MET-Ds controlling eight more RCVs provided by industry.

 

“We’re going to test cognitive load on the Soldiers … and at what operational distances we are able to conduct operations. [The Army is focused on] the tactics, techniques, and procedures, and what we want to use moving forward,” he added. The second experiment will move the RSV to the company level and triple the number of robots and surrogate control vehicles. This phase will test offensive and defensive maneuver capabilities and it’s slated for fiscal 2021. “During experiment two, we’re asking industry to provide modified off-the-shelf robots,” Coffman noted. “[The Army] will procure eight [industry] robots, then make a decision at the end of [testing].”

 

The final experiment is slated for fiscal 2023. The RSV will again operate at the company level, but this time, the vehicles will conduct a range of offensive, defensive, and combined arms breach maneuvers. “If I can put a robot in the direct line of fire of the enemy to determine their location, provided lethality, or breach an obstacle — America’s sons and daughters can be applied elsewhere on the battlefield,” Coffman emphasized. “This will give a standoff from our enemy … increase our mobility, and provide efficiency to combatant com

 

Russian employment of combat robots and their military effectiveness

In May 2018, the Russian military revealed it had combat-tested its Uran-9 robot tank in Syria. However, robots being developed at present are not ready for combat roles. Defense Blog reported that Senior Research Officer Andrei Anisimov told a conference at the Kuznetsov Naval Academy in St. Petersburg that the Uran-9’s performance in Syria revealed that “modern Russian combat Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) are not able to perform the assigned tasks in the classical types of combat operations.” He concluded it would be ten to fifteen more years before UGVs were ready for such complex tasks.

 

Andrei P. Anisimov, Senior Research Officer at the 3rd Central Research Institute of the Ministry of Defense, reported on the Uran-9’s critical combat deficiencies during the 10th All-Russian Scientific Conference entitled “Actual Problems of Defense and Security,” held in April 2018. In particular, the following issues came to light during testing:

• Instead of its intended range of several kilometers, the Uran-9 could only be operated at distance of “300-500 meters among low-rise buildings,” wiping out up to nine-tenths of its total operational range.

• There were “17 cases of short-term (up to one minute) and two cases of long-term (up to 1.5 hours) loss of Uran-9 control” recorded, which rendered this UGV practically useless on the battlefield.

• The UGV’s running gear had problems – there were issues with supporting and guiding rollers, as well as suspension springs.

• The electro-optic stations allowed for reconnaissance and identification of potential targets at a range of no more than two kilometers.

• The OCH-4 optical system did not allow for adequate detection of adversary’s optical and targeting devices and created multiple interferences in the test range’s ground and airspace.

• Unstable operation of the UGV’s 30mm automatic cannon was recorded, with firing delays and failures. Moreover, the UGV could fire only when stationary, which basically wiped out its very purpose of combat “vehicle.”

• The Uran-9’s combat, ISR, and targeting weapons and mechanisms were also not stabilized.

Anisimov also  highlighted the technological aspects that are ubiquitous worldwide at this point in the global development of similar unmanned systems: Low level of current UGV autonomy; Low level of automation of command and control processes of UGV management, including repairs and maintenance; Low communication range, and; Problems associated with “friend or foe” target identification.  Anisimov made the following key conclusions which point to the potential trajectory of Russian combat UGV development – assuming that other unmanned systemsmay have similar issues when placed in a simulated (or real) combat environment:

• These types of UGVs are equipped with a variety of cameras and sensors — and since the operator is presumably located a safe distance from combat, he may have problems understanding, processing, and effectively responding to what is taking place with this UGV in real-time.

• For the next 10-15 years, unmanned military systems will be unable to effectively take part in combat, with Russians proposing to use them in storming stationary and well-defended targets (effectively giving such combat UGVs a kamikaze role).

• One-time and preferably stationary use of these UGVs would be more effective, with maintenance and repair crews close by.

• These UGVs should be used with other military formations in order to target and destroy fortified and firing enemy positions — but never on their own, since their breakdown would negatively impact the military mission.

 

The presentation proposed that some of the above-mentioned problems could be overcome by domestic developments in the following UGV technology and equipment areas: Creating secure communication channels; Building miniaturized hi-tech navigation systems with a high degree of autonomy, capable of operating with a loss of satellite navigation systems; Developing miniaturized and effective ISR components; Integrating automated command and control systems, and; Better optics, electronics and data processing systems.

 

 

 

 

 

 

References and Resources also include:

https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2018/06/26/russian_ground_battlefield_robots_a_candid_evaluation_113558.html

http://www.satelliteevolutiongroup.com/articles/UGV.pdf

https://www.army.mil/article/238342/the_future_of_unmanned_ground_systems_in_the_operational_environment

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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