Unmanned systems is the interdisciplinary branch of engineering and science that includes mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, and others. Robotics deals with the design, construction, operation, and use of robots, as well as computer systems for their control, sensory feedback, and information processing. Machine learning is a sub-field of computer science that deals with the design and development of algorithms that can learn from and make predictions on data.
Robotics and machine learning are often used together in the creation and continuous improvement of robots. In general, robotics and machine learning can be used to create systems that can automate tasks and processes, as well as improve human cognitive abilities. There are five types of robots that are differentiated by their operating function and capabilities: pre-programmed robots, humanoid robots, autonomous robots, tele-operated robots, and augmenting robots.
Unmanned systems are used in a variety of settings, including manufacturing assembly lines, packaging and cargo handling at airports and docks, and in farming, dairy, and livestock automation. Unmanned systems are also being increasingly deployed in warfare. Industrial robots have replaced humans in many factory jobs including material handling, welding, and assembling. Medical robots, such as Da Vinci Surgical System, which allows surgeries to be performed by a surgeon sitting at a console some distance from the patient, are becoming increasingly prevalent. Across almost all fields robots are improving the human condition and proving to be vital in our progression.
Unmanned systems technology has revolutionized defense systems around the world in recent years. Military robotics can be broadly divided into three categories based on their domain of use: land, marine, and airborne.
Ground robots are typically used for tasks such as bomb disposal, while maritime defense robots are designed for anti-submarine warfare and other missions in naval environments. Autonomous aerial drones are increasingly used for reconnaissance and combat operations in hostile and friendly territory.
Technology and warfare are developing and changing in tandem. As the two progress, the value of military robotics that can reduce human interaction with danger and lead to advantages on the battlefield are becoming more common in defense budgets worldwide. The military robotics market is segmented by the domains mentioned above (air, sea, and land) and the modes of operation, human-operated or autonomous. The fastest-growing military robotics market is the Asia-Pacific, thanks to China’s rapid defense system and South Korea’s successful completion of new Unmanned Surveillance Vehicle developments.
The military robotics market is projected to have a compound annual growth rate of 7% between 2022 to 2031. Land segment military robotics is expected to generate the highest growth over the forecasted period. Continued technological development in the field of robotics is fostered through increased public-private collaboration. Intersectional interest in robotics will continue to drive substantial investments in research and development.
Marine military robots, in the form of autonomous seagoing vessels, like the Anti-Submarine Warfare (AWS) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV), shortened to Sea Hunter, are able to traverse hundreds of thousands of miles without a crew member on board and perform mission-critical tasks such as tracking and nullifying enemy submarines. DARPA and ONR began testing the Sea Hunter in 2014 and conducted numerous tasks before transitioning the boat to U.S. Navy operations. Autonomous marine vessels such as the Sea Hunter and Sea Hunter II have incredible autonomous capabilities, and the cost reduction of the ships is mentioned frequently as a key benefit. It is estimated that autonomous ships can cost $15,000 to $20,000 per day to operate, far less than the average $700,000 per day cost it takes to keep a manned naval destroyer in operation.
On land, Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) have extensive capabilities which increase mission performance and personnel safety while completing complex tasks in high threat environments.
Unmanned vehicles can operate in urban warfare, fire-fighting, and chemical and biological threat zones to neutralize and detect threats without direct danger to personnel. The U.S. Army plans to build and deploy three types of robotic combat vehicles by 2030. These vehicles will have the capability to fight solo or alongside crewed vehicles, and will be equipped with other unmanned features.
Quadrupedal Unmanned Ground Vehicles, or Q-UGVs, are now being integrated into government and enterprise applications. Mobile robots with four legs have advantages over vehicles with wheels, tracks, and bipedal systems.
The Vision 60, made by Ghost Robotics, is a Q-UGV created for rapid adaptation to new environments using a proprietary blind-mode control core that mimics how mammals operate across a range of urban and nonments.
The robot is made to keep soldiers, workers, and K9s out of danger.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are rapidly evolving in the military robotics space, but as a result, so too has the need for anti-drone defense systems, many of them unmanned and transportable. The Air Force is building new counter-drone robotic devices from successful technologies such as Tactical High Power Operational Responder, or THOR.
For more on UAVs, read The Evolution of Small Drone Tech: An Introduction.
The Autonomous exoskeleton is another type of robot with enormous potential in the military robotics field. Their prominent use is to help make soldiers stronger, with some, like the Guardian XO, having the capability to lift over 200 pounds and operate for eight hours. Increased strength can aid soldiers in carrying weapons and equipment and help in search and rescue and cleanup operations.
The rhetoric surrounding military robots is critical. They have often been deemed “killer robots,” a term used when questioning the ethics of their use. The Human Rights Watch’s joint report with Harvard Law Schools International Rights Clinic has specifically argued that militaries could be fully armed with “killer robots” in the next thirty years.
Robots, unlike humans, are not physically limited and their abilities are not based on access to resources like food and water. Robots also lack empathy and are not psychologically bound to societal morals in the way soldiers can be during war.
Military robots evaluate the information around them and then make decisions based on past and current facts, without factoring in emotion. This leads some critics to view military robots as unethical during war. However, similarly to other technologies and weapons utilized in modern warfare, the ethical concerns are rooted in human accountability and policy making rather than the technology itself.
Robust policy and reasonable regulation are essential to ensure that military robots are used for advancing civilian and combatant safety. Military robot advancement moves in parallel with the progress of robots for numerous other uses that increase human ability and advance humanity as a whole.
Regardless of the myriad of opinions on military robotics in the international community, the numbers do not lie. The U.S. Military has invested billions into robotics research and with a growing defense budget year after year, increased challenges in recruiting, and global conflict on the rise, military robotics are and will continue to be a necessity in the United States defense strategy.