U.S. ground combat forces like the idea of self-controlling, unmanned robots on the battlefield – as long as they don’t have big guns mounted on them.
Both the Army and Marine Corps rank autonomy among its future priorities for unmanned ground vehicles. The Army has been trying to develop multi-wheeled UGVs for carrying extra ammo, packs, water, fuel and batteries capable of following behind formations of troops on their home.
If they are ever perfected, these robotic mules could significantly reduce the heavy loads infantrymen have to carry to survive in combat.
But when it comes to programming missile-launcher toting robots to fight on their own, most Army and Marine officials want to leave the shooting to humans.
“When it comes to killing people, they believe as I do, there needs to be a man in the loop to make that decision,” Bill Powers, of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, told an audience at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International 2013 conference Tuesday.
“Here’s the biggest fear — somebody is going to arm a system like that and they are going to program in what it needs to do and it’s going to start shooting.”
Marine officials agreed that any lethal system has to have a man in the loop controlling it, said Marine Lt. Col. Michael Hixson, the combat engineer chief information officer for the Marine Corps’ Unmanned Ground Systems.
“I think that is why we got away from land mines,” he said. “They’re a good analogy because we can’t control them.”
Combat units are comfortable using remote weapon stations, a system where the gunner sits protected down inside an armored vehicle and controls the weapon system with a computer and a joystick.
“The question is how far do we stretch that remoteness; do we do it from a guard tower? Do we do it through a mobile platform?” said Col. Stuart Hatfield, branch chief of Soldier Systems and Unmanned Ground Systems for Army G8.
“A luxury that the air guys have that we don’t is that they are shooting down to the ground so if they miss their target they hit the ground. When you shoot from the ground to another point on the ground and if you miss the target, that weapon system continues to go.”
Even with the man in the loop, there are a lot of new risks that come with arming an unmanned vehicle, Hatfield said.
“You don’t want to miss the target that you have identified and hit something beyond that whether it is a civilian or anything else out there that can become collateral damage.”