Thursday, 18 July 2019

Robots, Drones and Autonomous vehicles

Day 2 of my quite undemanding challenge of three posts in three days. And today we're talking drones and robot s. To start, check out this video by Bloomberg reporter Ashlee Vance:

While the design is interesting, especially the jinking ability (check out those wheel treads) what's really important here are a few over arching principles.

The first of these is that China is rapidly starting to take the lead in commercial drone design. While we still look on in amusement every time someone flies a quadcopter, the Chinese seem to be pushing the boundaries of what a commercial drone or robot is capable of in a much more dynamic and interesting way. Through the medium of toys for the young (and the young at heart) Chinese companies are accumulating a lot of experience and data about what works and what doesn't, while generating sizable revenues to invest in further research and development. It's difficult to argue that as commercial drones and robots become increasingly sophisticated and crop up more and more often in conflict zones that the Chinese don't have a big head start on the west.

It's not just in the devices that the Chinese seem to have the lead. It's in their operators as well.

For the last two decades we've been told that all those hours that kids spend in front of their computer screens will become a massive advantage in the future of conflict. Fast twitch thumbs, heightened reaction times and highly tuned hand-eye coordination would make the joystick warriors of today into the professional soldiers of the future. With the advancements in drone technology and their increasing integration into conflict zones, the future may finally be now. And as the Bloomberg film shows China is building - intentionally or otherwise - an army of these highly talented young gamer-warriors.

What's striking from the piece though is that it's not just the skills and experience needed to operate the robots that's being developed, it's also the skills and savvy needed to build and program them. In the military context that means a potential army of recruits who are already "robot ready", capable of identifying and fixing problems with existing designs in the field, making modifications to them, and potentially even improvising new types of drones and robots using scavenged parts. That last trait could add a deadly new twist to the future of unconventional warfare, with specialist operators passing on their knowledge to their insurgent charges, rapidly increasing the scope and complexity of future insurgent drone capabilities.

Finally, and not specific to China, we come to the general argument about the investment and reception of autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies in military circles. While air and naval forces have embraced the opportunities and are actively investigating all the possibilities they can bring, land forces the world over seem a lot slower on the uptake. While we have seen the use of robots for bomb disposal and small drones for recce work, the development of such technologies seems to have ground to something of a halt in the land domain. At least by organised militaries.

Compare this to what we're seeing coming out of places like Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Libya in recent years. Here in the wild west of military development we've seen small commercial drones of the quadcopter variety and similar ilk used as everything from tactical level recce platforms, to airborne artillery observation posts, battlefield command observation platforms, and even for the delivery of explosive effects directly onto the enemy, both with disposable warheads and using the drone itself to "suicide" onto the target to maximise accuracy. 

These are not the only tech developments though. We've seen sniper rifles hooked up with video cameras and linked to laptops and even mobile phones to permit remote operation away from the weapon. Cameras themselves have become a means of persistent observation, situated both in friendly positions and even left out in the field in concealed positions to provide persistent and undetected observation of enemy positions. This wild west has been a veritable breeding ground for technological progression and adaptation. 

While the UK lumbers on with systems like Watchkeeper, we have to ask ourselves whether the UK is in fact being left behind not just in the technology war, but the war of ideas and innovation as well? While efforts have been made to investigate the use of autonomous load carrying vehicles to accompany a foot patrol in a COIN environment (fighting the last war much?), what investigations have been done into an autonomous or remotely operated resupply vehicle that could ferry back and forth from a logistics hub to a forward resupply point just back from the front line?

What ground based recce vehicles have we come up with, allowing a recce patrol to send out a remotely operated vehicle from a safe position to quietly pick its way through the terrain ahead and carry out the very close observation of enemy positions, including audio collection, while letting the troops themselves stay hidden further back? What progress has been made on the possibilities of using small robots to deliver effects such as explosives right into the middle of an enemy position prior to an assault? 

Imagine the difference it might make to an armoured assault if the leading wave of troop carrying vehicles was itself preceded by a wave of car sized remotely operated vehicles carrying weapons stations to bring the suppression and chaos right up into the enemies face. Or a semi-automated mortar platform, able to race away into the middle of a field to execute a fire mission before returning to cover to have its magazine topped up.

The British army is a small force compared to many, so numbers are always going to be a struggle. If the UK also gives up a significant technological edge to the enemy that could be a recipe for disaster. The land domain is advancing in leaps and bounds. If the British army doesn't advance at the same rate it risks being left behind and becoming a relic of the pre-drone era.

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