Army to ramp up robot use over next decade

Expects ‘significant combat advantage’ from the technology

The Australian Army plans to ramp up its use of robotics and autonomous systems in ground combat over the next decade, it has been revealed.

According to Australia’s first Defence Industrial Capability Plan, which was published earlier this week, the Army will use the technology to “augment soldiers performing dirty, dangerous and dull roles” and improve decision-making. The next ten years will see “increased use” of such technology, the document states.

The plan outlines Australia’s ‘Sovereign Industrial Capability Priorities’, funding for which will be drawn the government’s $200 billion Integrated Investment Program.

In July last year, the government launched a $50 million Defence Cooperative Research Centre – based in Brisbane – focused on ‘Trusted Autonomous Systems’. The centre brings together academia, research agencies and industry to deliver “game-changing unmanned platforms that ensure reliable and effective cooperation between people and machines during dynamic military operations”.

In September, the Army’s head of land capability Major General Kathryn Toohey outlined the advantage the defence force saw in using robots in combat.

“The Australian Army recognises that robotics and autonomous systems can afford us significant combat advantage in the future. For some time we have understood that robotics and autonomous systems can replace humans for some dirty, dangerous and repetitive tasks. However, we are now coming to appreciate they have the potential to do a lot more,” she told a defence industry conference in London.

She added that the ‘winner’ in the use of robotics in the armed forces would not simply be the side with the best technology.

“The true opportunity afforded by robotics and autonomous systems is how we partner or team the technology with our soldiers, develop new warfighting concepts and design new organisational structures,” she said.

Toohey disclosed that it had been working on a project, codenamed Athena, which aims to send robots into dangerous situations that ‘project the presence’ of a soldier.

“This serves to provide updated situational understanding to the soldier but it also means the soldier is not unnecessarily placed in an area of high threat,” she said.

Toohey also outlined the potential of a ‘door kicker’ robot like the one seen in 2015 movie Chappie, which serves as a ballistic shield moving ahead of a human team.

“It would appear that this type of sci-fi technology is not that far from becoming reality,” she said.

The announcement will be of significant concern to campaigners attempting to curtail the use of autonomous systems in warfare.

In November, 122 AI experts working in Australia signed an open letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, calling on Australia to “take a firm global stand” against lethal autonomous weapons systems that remove “meaningful human control” when selecting targets and deploying lethal force.

The Australian experts’ open letter is part of a broader international campaign – the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots – hoping to stop the use of such weapons by establishing treaties similar to the ban on chemical weapons.

Their effort received a blow last month when Foreign minister Julie Bishop said the government considered it “premature to support” any ban on the weapons.

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