Arming robots

One of my central concerns in this blog is developments in remotely controlled weapon systems, including the arming of ground robots.  A sense of the wider context for these developments is provided by Dinyar Godrej in his succinct, and chilling, analysis of the current state of the arms industry globally, published in the December 2011 issue of the New Internationalist.  As Godrej observes: “Despite the fact that arms manufacturing in most Western nations ultimately represents vast fortunes of public funds flowing into private coffers for products that deal in injury or death, the industry is usually represented as a source of pride … Nowhere is this more evident than in the US, which spends almost as much as the rest of the world combined on arms [almost $700 billion in 2010, 43% of all military expenditures globally] and is the world’s largest arms exporter to boot.  Between 2001 (the start of the ‘war on terror’) and 2003, just the increase in military spending of this country was larger than the entire military budgets of countries like China or Britain.”

So war continues to be good for business, as military funding supports technology research and development, which brings us back to iRobot. According to IEEE Spectrum, iRobot has only relatively recently, and reluctantly, entered into the field of weaponized robots, perhaps driven to do so by the increasing importance of the military market to the company’s financial well being.  An initial configuration of iRobot’s 710 Warrior, as described in Defense Systems, features an Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System or APOBS: more specifically “an explosive line charge deployed by a rocket that pulls a rope with a string of fragmentation grenades attached and a small parachute at the opposite end. The explosive line charge, which the robot fires from a distance of 35 meters, can clear a path 45 meters wide.”

iRobot’s reluctance may help to explain some of the notable absences in the company’s representations of the range and functionality of its robotic products.  As an ‘anti-personnel obstacle breaching system,’ the Warrior can be seen as not only a technological but also a logical extension of iRobot’s previous offerings in the line of ‘life saving’ devices, a kind of bigger brother to the Packbot, furthering the objective of clearing away potential explosives planted by an enemy.  But where the Packbot would be sent to inspect a single device, the Warrior – as seen in this demonstration video – has a wider and more indeterminate target.

The presence or absence of humans as targets of the Warrior is a point of debate even among the actors involved: IEEE Spectrum’s Automaton blog reports that in response to its first report titled ‘iRobot demonstrates new weaponized robot,’ “Some readers argued that the APOBS, or Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System, developed in a joint program of the U.S. Army and Navy, is not, technically, a weapon, because it’s not an anti-personnel system but rather a system used against obstacles. Perry Villanueva, the project engineer for the APOBS program on the Army side, says the APOBS “is not a weapon in the traditional sense, but it is a weapon.”  The point of confusion here seems to center on the question of against just which ‘personnel’ explosives are being deployed (in reports of IEDs, the ‘personnel’ involved are assumed to be to ‘our’ side, and ‘anti-personnel obstacles’ those deployed by the other side). The demonstration video, in any case, makes no reference to the possibility that other humans might be targets, or even caught within the Warrior’s very wide destructive path: the only bodies that we see are three US soldiers lying prone in readiness at a safe distance from the explosion.

The built environment here appears as an indistinct collection of metal objects and other debris, a kind of junk yard ready to be further pulverized. In actual use situations, however, we can assume a high probability that the vicinity of the ‘obstacle’ would itself be populated.  The problems arise, most obviously, when the barren ‘battlefield’ of the demonstration video (staged at China Lake in the Mohave Desert) is replaced by more densely inhabited landscapes, home as well to non-combatants.

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