The US Army is seeking a few good robots not to fight rather help the men and women who do. These robots aren’t taking up weapons, but the companies are making them fight a different kind of battle. There is a contract worth approximately half a billion dollars for 3,000 backpack-sized robots which can defuse bombs and explore enemy positions. This work has led competition between Congress and federal court.
The project is liked by others as it could help troops one day. “look around the corner, over the next hillside and let the robot be in harm’s way and let the robot get shot,” said Paul Scharre, a military technology expert at the Center for a New American Security.
The battle over small robots create path intersection of technology and national defense and shows how panic that China could go beyond the US drives even small tech startups to play geopolitics to get the better off rivals. It also raises questions that whether defense technology should be sourced exclusively to American companies to stay away from the risk of tampering by foreign rivals.
In spite of prevailing of certain companies, the competition indicates a future in which robots, which are already well-known military tools, become even more common. The immediate plans of the Army alone visualize a new fleet of 5,000 ground robots of varying sizes and levels of autonomy. The Marines, Navy and Air Force are making similar investments.
“My personal estimate is that robots will play a significant role in combat inside of a decade or a decade and a half,” the chief of the Army, Gen. Mark Milley, said in May at a Senate hearing where he appealed for more money to modernize the force.
Milley advised that adversaries like China and Russia “are investing heavily and very quickly” in the use of aerial, sea and ground robots. He also told, ” we are doing the same.”
This swing will be a “huge game-changer for combat,” said Scharre, who credits Milley’s leadership for the drive.
The US defense contractors and technology startups have been taking the benefits from the big Pentagon investments in robotics. But the circumstances are murkier for firms having foreign ties.
Worries behind popular commercial drones made by Chinese company DJI that it could be vulnerable to spying led the Army to forbid their use by soldiers in 2017. According to a published report of the Pentagon, China is performing espionage to obtain foreign military technologies — sometimes by using students or researchers as “procurement agents and intermediaries.” At a December defense expo in Egypt, many US firms marked that they viewed as Chinese knock-offs of their robots.
China fears reached at a rivalry between Israeli firm Roboteam and Massachusetts-based Endeavor Robotics over a chain of major contracts to build the Army’s next generation of ground robots. Those machines will be made to be smarter and easier to install than the remote-controlled rovers that have helped troops disable bombs for over 15 years.
The biggest contract whose worth is $429 million — calls for mass production of 25-pound robots which are light, easily moveable and can be “carried by infantry for long distances without taxing the soldier,” said Bryan McVeigh, project manager for force projection at the Army’s research and contracting center in Warren, Michigan.
Other heavier models are tank-sized unmanned supply vehicles that have been tried in the rough and cold landscape outside Fort Drum, New York.
In late 2017, a third $100 million contract won by Endeavor was concluded for a medium-sized investigation and bomb-disabling robot nicknamed the Centaur.
The competition raised into a legal fight when Roboteam charged Endeavor of evaluating its prospects for those contracts by appointing a lobbying firm that spread false information to politicians about the Israeli firm’s Chinese investors. A federal judge rejected Roboteam’s lawsuit in April.
“They alleged that we had somehow defamed them,” said Endeavor CEO Sean Bielat, a former Marine who twice ran for Congress as a Republican. “What we had done was taken publicly available documents and presented them to members of Congress because we think there’s a reason to be concerned about Chinese influence on defense technologies.”
The Boston-based lobbying firm, Sachem Strategies, distributed a memo to members of the House Armed Services Committee. Implementing Endeavor’s cause was Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat — and, like Bielat, a Marine veteran — who wrote a letter to a top military official in December 2016 influencing the Army to “examine the evidence of Chinese influence” before awarding the robot contracts.
Roboteam CEO Elad Levy rejected to give the statement on the dispute but said the firm is still “working very closely with U.S. forces,” including the Air Force, and other countries. But it’s no longer in the running for the lucrative Army opportunities.
Endeavor searching for something like a small forklift on tank treads and its prototype called the Scorpion has been zipping around a test track behind an office park in a Boston community.
The only other finalist is just 20 miles away at the former Massachusetts headquarters of Foster-Miller, currently a part of British defense contractor QinetiQ. The company did not react to repetitive requests for comment. The contract is likely to be awarded in early 2019.
Both Endeavor and Qinetiq have good track records with the US military, having offered it with its former generation of ground robots, for example, Endeavor’s Packbot and Qinetiq’s Talon and Dragon Runner.
At a recent Army conference, after hiding the Scorpion behind a covering, Bielat and engineers at Endeavor presented it for the first time in public to The Associated Press in November. By means of a touchscreen controller, an engineer navigated it through tunnels, over a playground-like structure and through an icy pool of water, and used its grabber to lift up objects.
The previous version, the Packbot was bigger than this and it was first used by US troops in Afghanistan in 2002 and later became one of the soldiers’ essential tools for safely disabling improvised explosives in Iraq. According to Bielat, the newer Scorpion and Centaur robots are designed to be easier for the average soldier to use quickly without having advanced technical training.
“Their primary job is to be a rifle squad member,” Bielat said. “They don’t have time to mess with the robot. They’re going to demand greater levels of autonomy.”
The Defense Department is careful about developing machines for the battlefield that make their own decisions. That keeps the US aside from endeavors by China and Russia to design artificially intelligent war-fighting armory.
As per the November report from the Congressional Research Service, in spite of the Pentagon’s “insistence” that a human must always be in the loop, the military could soon feel required to develop fully autonomous systems if rivals do the same. Or, as with drones, humans will still pull the trigger, but a distant robot will strike the bombs.
“China has showed off armed ones. Russia has showed them off. It’s coming.” said P.W. Singer, a strategist for the New America Foundation think tank.