Army looks for a few good robots
CHELMSFORD, Mass. — The Army is looking for a few good robots. Not to fight — not yet, at least — but to help the men and women who do.
These robots aren’t taking up arms, but the companies making them have waged a different kind of battle. At stake is a contract worth almost half a billion dollars for 3,000 backpack-sized robots that can defuse bombs and scout enemy positions. Competition for the work has spilled over into Congress and federal court.
The project and others like it could someday help troops “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 big fight over small robots opens a window into the intersection of technology and national defense and shows how fear that China could surpass the U.S. drives even small tech startups to play geopolitics to outmaneuver rivals. It also raises questions about whether defense technology should be sourced solely to American companies to avoid the risk of tampering by foreign adversaries.
Regardless of which companies prevail, the competition foreshadows a future in which robots, which are already familiar military tools, become even more common. The Army’s immediate plans alone envision 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 warned that adversaries like China and Russia “are investing heavily and very quickly” in the use of aerial, sea and ground robots. And now, he added, “we are doing the same.”
Such a shift will be a “huge game-changer for combat,” said Scharre, who credits Milley’s leadership for the push.
The promise of such big Pentagon investments in robotics has been a boon for U.S. defense contractors and technology startups. But the situation is murkier for firms with foreign ties.
Concerns that popular commercial drones made by Chinese company DJI could be vulnerable to spying led the Army to ban their use by soldiers in 2017. And in August, the Pentagon published a report that said China is conducting espionage to acquire foreign military technologies — sometimes by using students or researchers as “procurement agents and intermediaries.” At a December defense expo in Egypt, some U.S. firms spotted what they viewed as Chinese knock-offs of their robots.
The China fears came to a head in a bitter competition between Israeli firm Roboteam and Massachusetts-based Endeavor Robotics over a series of major contracts to build the Army’s next generation of ground robots. Those machines will be designed to be smarter and easier to deploy than the remote-controlled rovers that have helped troops disable bombs for more than 15 years.