Technology

Britain’s Future Robotic Army

Remarks by top brass suggesting robots could make up a quarter of troop numbers by the 2030s, how realistic a prospect is it?

Hasta la vista, baby… 

OK, perhaps James Cameron’s Terminator predictions of 1980s sci-fi cinema have turned out to be a little off the mark. 

However, the depiction of a future war being fought by robotic soldiers has been mooted, not just by Arnold Schwarzenegger movie fans but by British Army generals, including Sir Nick Carter.

Speaking on the morning of Remembrance Day, 2019, General Sir Nick suggested that by the 2030s, the British Army might be made up of “30,000” robots. 

Speaking to reporters, he said:

“I suspect we could have an army of 120,000, of which 30,000 might be robots ….”

The Chief of General Staff added that he was by no means setting targets. Still, his comments did register a lot of interest from military commentators and defence experts alike.

So how realistic a prospect is a future robotic army capable of taking on an enemy in place of human soldiers? And given that, in the movies, the possibility of drone armies has been a matter of fantasy for decades, how soon might it switch to being more likely a fact of future wars?

Here is an examination of what the British Army currently has in its pipeline regarding robotic and autonomous equipment, designed to make the battlefield less human and more, erm, Hasta la vista.

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Many Drones Make Light Work

In 2019, the MOD awarded a £2.5 million contract to a consortium led by Blue Bear, a British-based unmanned systems business, to develop drone swarming capabilities for the Armed Forces.

At the time, Blue Bear said that their swarming technology could be used on the battlefield across several strategic areas, including situational awareness, medical assistance, logistics resupply, explosive ordnance detection and confusion and deception. 

For anybody who doubts the likelihood of this type of autonomous technology becoming a reality anytime soon, we have some news. This month, Royal Marines Commandos successfully trialled drone swarming tactics for the first time in a proper live exercise. 

Personnel from 40 Commando and 42 Commando used swarms of drones to carry out training raids on missile and radar installations at the Electronic Warfare Tactics facility at RAF Spadeadam in Cumbria and at Lulworth Cove in Dorset.

The trials, named Autonomous Advance Force 4.0, were the latest in a series of experimental exercises developing how the Future Commando Force will one day operate, emphasising humans and technology working together closely on the battlefield.

Drone swarming is very nearly a full-blown Armed Forces reality.

Blue Bear's small UAVs can provide aerial surveillance and reconnaissance at a smaller cost and risk to human life. Credit: Blue Bear

Intelligent Wingman

The proliferation of robotic and autonomous technology at the 2019 DSEI Expo at London’s Excel Centre indicated that sophisticated militaries had warmed to the idea of using this type of technology on future battlefields. 

One key defence supplier involved in the design and production of technology in the autonomous field of defence is Milrem Robotics, who, at the forthcoming DSEI trade show in London, will demonstrate the Type-XRCV - a robotic platform designed to support mechanised military units. 

According to Milrem, the Type X will “become an intelligent wingman to main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles and will be capable of taking on the most dangerous tasks and positions, resulting in lower lethality risk.”

Milrem’s intelligent robotic kit could be used for resupply, medivac or combat tasks. The company describes this matter by pointing out the vehicle can be “outfitted with several 25 mm to 50 mm autocannons.”

It says:

“The Type-X Combat provides equal or overmatching firepower and tactical usage compared to traditional Infantry Fighting vehicles. It can be utilised to localise and engage lower range targets and provide flanking support. The Type-X considerably raises troop survivability and lowers lethality risks by increasing standoff distance to enemy units.”

Speaking ahead of September’s DESI Expo, Kuldar Väärsi, CEO of Milrem Robotics, said:

“The vehicle will be equipped with intelligent functions such as follow-me, waypoint navigation and obstacle detection with Artificial Intelligence being part of the algorithms.”

Milrem's Type X Robotic Combat Vehicle. Credit: Milrem / DSEI

Last Mile Resupply 

Milrem is also involved in the development of Autonomous Last Mile Resupply technology alongside defence partner QinetiQ.

This bit of kit, known as Titan, is much further along the road to full-time military use in everyday battlefield scenarios than some of the other examples featured in this article. 

Titan’s first trials were passed as long ago as 2018, a process that saw the Defence Science Technology Laboratory (Dstl) challenge industry and academia to develop workable solutions to deliver vital supplies to soldiers on the front line. 

Back then, QinetiQ said that the robot was remotely tasked from a ground control station to “autonomously navigate a route over mixed terrain, demonstrating its ability to deliver supplies to troops stationed in dangerous environments where access is limited.”

Titan - "last mile resupply". Credit: QinetiQ

Bomb Disposal Robots

The use of robots in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) is a section of mil tech that has used robotics more than most others. EOD units have worked with robots to help defeat the IED threat to troops on operations for decades. 

However, technology is constantly evolving. 

The latest state of the art kit used by EOD teams in the British Army is the Harris T7.

Harris TF stats. Credit: Defence Equipment & Support.

Developed by L3Harris, they say the robot has the “strength and dexterity to tackle any challenge.”

Their website says:

“Its rugged, automotive-grade track system provides outstanding mobility and manoeuvrability. A variety of attachments enable use of standard-issue sensors, disruptors, and tools, supporting a wide range of commercial and military missions, including HAZMAT and vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) defeat. In the configuration shown, T7 includes a pan, tilt, and zoom (PTZ) camera mast, high power multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) radios.”

With benefits including “human like dexterity”, the ability to meet “evolving mission requirements”, and intuitive controls that “reduces cognitive burden”, the equipment has been in the MOD portfolio for two years already. 

 

How do you think robots will be used in the coming two decades? Tell us your thoughts at [email protected].