A multi-robot pursuit system for the US army

By | October 25, 2008

The US army’s desire to develop a multi-robot pursuit system paints a rather bleak future for humanity. After successfully organizing the GRAND and URBAN Challenges with the goal of developing technologies for autonomous driving military vehicles and sponsoring the development of remote-controlled robots for surveillance and also the detection and destruction of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the army now has published a call for proposals for the development of robotic systems that (as the New Scientist puts it) will be able to hunt down humans like a pack of dogs.

There are many research efforts within robotics in path planning, exploration, and mapping of indoor and outdoor environments. Operator control units are available that allow semi-autonomous map-based control of a team of robots. While the test environments are usually benign, they are slowly becoming longer and more complex. There has also been significant research in the game theory community involving pursuit/evasion scenarios. This topic seeks to merge these research areas and develop a software/hardware suit that would enable a multi-robot team, together with a human operator, to search for and detect a non-cooperative human subject.

The emphasis on the phrase “non-cooperative human subject” is mine and this is the one phrase that really scares me and should scare the rest of you as well. Notice, that the proposal does not specify that the target is a combatant but rather any non-cooperative human. In other words, assuming that such a system is eventually developed (and it certainly will be developed sooner or later,) there is nothing to prevent the army from using it against the average citizen who happens to disagree with the status quo. Experts interviewed by New Scientist agree that it won’t be long before these robots are equipped with weapons and their mission upgraded from finding a subject to terminating him/her!

In addition, I find Phase III of the proposal rather interesting and conflicting with the project description quoted above. Specifically, it says,

Robots that can intelligently and autonomously search for objects have potential commercialization within search and rescue, fire fighting, reconnaissance, and automated biological, chemical and radiation sensing with mobile platforms.

People in need of rescue are not normally non-cooperative. If I am inside a burning building with no hope for escaping then I would do everything in my power to help a human or robot team find me!

The research topic of multi-robot pursuit/evasion is definitely interesting but the ultimate application of detecting non-cooperative human subjects scares me more than anything else I have seen recently.

7 thoughts on “A multi-robot pursuit system for the US army

  1. Bob Mottram

    As always the military are at the forefront of technology – whoever wields the biggest stick remains as alpha male.

    The kind of scenario described in the proposal however is more of a policing one. Although initially perhaps developed for military use, if successful I expect this technology to quickly transition to civilian police forces. On many levels it makes sense to use robots in risky situations – chasing armed criminals, disarming kidnappers, etc. However, I expect that there will need to be legislation governing when it is appropriate to use this sort of system.

  2. Awesom-o

    Well said Bob. I also do hope that there will be legislation to restrict the use of such systems on civilians.

  3. Wanderer

    Good article, but you go beyond your normally measured and sensible tones in the couple of paragraphs about Phase III. You are right that humans in emergency situations are normally cooperative, but a system trained to seek out hiding humans will also probably be pretty good at finding someone stuck in a fallen building or sheltering after a natural disaster.

  4. Karl Zimmerman

    The weaponization of robots worries me, too. However, I must take issue with your statement that “people in need of rescue are not normally non-cooperative.” In basic life-saving (swimming) class, I was taught specifically that a drowning person often panics and tries to climb on top of their rescuer, endangering the rescuer and ultimately the rescuee; thus we were taught to approach and hold a rescuee from behind.

    This was well-known when I took said class in 1975. It seems there are some circumstances at least in which it is quite normal for a person in dire straits to be uncooperative with their would-be rescuer.

  5. Beloved Spear

    We’re friends of Sarah Connor. May we see her please?

  6. Jacek

    I was about to provide a drowning example, but Karl already did it (lifeguards are actually trained in fighting an uncooperative rescuee).

    Anyway, I believe all this civilian stuff is there just to please and comfort the public. The military/policing applications really worry me. The police already have trouble with finding right regulations regarding new types of weapons (for example Tasers, those in Vacouver BC know what I mean). It is easy to imagine how hard it would be to regulate policing robots.

  7. Cerulean Bill

    Non-cooperative can also mean someone who is unconcious, such as an injured person who cannot respond to verbal contact from rescuers.

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