The military has always been at the cutting edge of technology, so it should come as no surprise that the most advanced robots in the world are being built with military applications in mind. While the thought of autonomous machines carrying heavy armaments might make people a bit nervous, they have the potential to dramatically reduce loss of life, allowing soldiers to safely scout locations or breach enemy locations. Many of them are even designed for support purposes, rather than eliminating threats.
While many military projects from around the world are naturally shrouded in secrecy, some of them see the light of day, including robotic projects. Here are some of the coolest robots we’ve seen with military applications, from tiny spy robots to unmanned battle tanks.
Soldiers often have to hike extended distances while carrying heavy packs and equipment. This soft, lightweight exoskeleton takes on some of that weight, reducing the burden on a soldier’s body. It uses a system of powered cables to provide mechanical assistance, adding carefully timed pulling forces to natural movements so that the user’s own muscles expend less energy.
The exoskelton was developed by researchers from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering under a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Harvard’s exoskeleton prototype is undergoing performance testing by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Soldiers wear the prototype underneath a full set of battle gear and hike a three mile course, including roadways and moderately rugged, wooded terrain. ARL technicians monitor the soldiers’ stride lengths and frequency, muscle activity, and energy expenditure. The goal is to allow soldiers to walk longer distances carrying heavy loads with less effort, while also minimizing risk of injury.
We have been working on the autonomous weapons issue for several years. We have presented at the United Nations in Geneva and at the World Economic Forum; we have written an open letter signed by over 3,700 AI and robotics researchers and over 20,000 others and covered in over 2,000 media articles; one of us (Russell) drafted a letter from 40 of the world’s leading AI researchers to President Obama and led a delegation to the White House in 2016 to discuss the issue with officials from the Departments of State and Defense and members of the National Security Council; we have presented to multiple branches of the armed forces in the United States and to the intelligence community; and we have debated the issue in numerous panels and academic fora all over the world.