Army looks for a few good ro­bots

The Progress-Index Weekend - - OBITUARIES - By Matt O’Brien

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.

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