By Nick Thompson, CNN • Updated 22nd September 2017
At the beginning of September the US Army opened the doors to its annual trade show in Baltimore, Maryland, featuring unmanned weapons systems.
Complex networking methods and artificial intelligence were on show, along with the cutting-edge and still shrouded technology of autonomous robots.
One of the biggest news items in this field has been the recent rollout of a Swiss Army Knife-like device from Ottobock Weapons, the Raspers Cobra.
The Raspers Cobra, which is designed for challenging terrain, is controlled from a smartphone, but “everything is controlled from the ground and not from the top or from the top from the ground,” says Andreas Roemer, the project’s co-creator.
U.S. Army weapons distributor Marten Defense launched a giant Swiss Army Knife-like weapon that can knock out incoming soldiers with precision mortar attacks. Credit: Marten Defense
For a company now based in Connecticut, Roemer works from a classic solution to technological change: learn by trial and error.
The original idea was to create a robot that could mine and reclaim land, as well as provide surveillance.
But the underlying message seems to be the human value of robots like the Raspers Cobra, which is already used by the United Nations to carry out investigations of war crimes.
“When it comes to the idea of building robots that can protect people, I think it has to start with people,” says Roemer.
A range of sensors, including a ground camera and machine vision, aid operator’s ability to detect and select target vehicles, combatants, or obstacles.
Blast fragmentation can also be used, of which live mines are much cheaper than only craters, according to Roemer.
“It’s much cheaper to open a mine than to just destroy something using explosives,” he says.
Ground robots are very good at identifying soft terrain, where they tend to be more efficient, as opposed to rocky mountain terrain where they tend to have less chances of recognition.
More autonomous than the ‘bionic man’
The most important point, says Roemer, is that the device is sufficiently autonomous. The operator’s view is kept on a high floor of the weapon, and must be easy to understand, but not worry the machine too much.
“What we can do in this is operate at a certain distance and select people from distance,” says Roemer.
“The way it is now, you have maybe an operator that’s standing a hundred meters away, and then all of a sudden there’s a drone shot out and there’s gunfire. That’s not a good situation to start with.”
Roemer says that Raspers Cobra only fires from a distance of up to 120 meters, far shorter than the dimensions of ranges that would allow this “bionic man” — as he describes it — to be successful in battle.
However, the remote operator is in constant control of the device, so that all of the operator’s actions are registered by the robot’s processing system.
Dutch company VASER Weaponry also displayed new robotic capabilities to the “big three” media — here a “Mantis Gun,” a robot-operated turret meant to take out a target with maximum accuracy. Credit: VASER Weaponry
This is a style of thinking shared by many roboticists, as they attempt to harness computer technology to new and worthwhile applications in the greater good.
“What you want to do is get all the data possible out of the robots and then apply that information to the human,” says Roemer.
Whether they succeed in this long-term battle against human pride is open to debate. But few in the audience of military engineers and weapons manufacturers would disagree that there are advantages to be gained from deploying robots in battle.
And, at any rate, one thing’s for sure: the world has become a much safer place for the robots — whether they’re used to protect humans or kill them.