In a further sign of advances being made by robots on the battlefield, the U.S. Marine Corps recently tested a robotic ‘dog’ by firing an M72 infantry anti-armour rocket launcher.
While still working at a very elemental stage, the research gave a glimpse of the potential for drones and robots in combat - a field that has become a major centre for weapons development. As the industry journal The Warzone, notes, “This is the latest example of growing interest in the U.S. and foreign militaries forces, especially the Chinese and Russian armed forces, in the idea of arming four-legged uncrewed ground systems.”
Conducted at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, California the tests were successful in firing a rocket-launcher albeit from an off-the-shelf robot. Highlighting how far robot technology has come and how useful they could be to soldiers in either carrying heavy loads or in use as remote firing platforms for dangerous battlefield positions.
“Instead of having a Marine handle the weapon system, manipulate the safeties, we could put a remote trigger mechanism on it that allowed it to all be done remotely,” explains Lt. Aaron Safadi, an officer in the Marines with Tactical Training and Exercise Control Group. “The Marine could be behind cover and concealment, the weapon system could go forward, and the Marine could manipulate the safeties from a safe place while allowing that weapon system to get closer to its target.”
According to a report in the Military Times, “The platform appears to be the Go1 robot dog made by the Chinese robotics company Unitree.” Noting that the company, which promotes the robot as ‘Lightweight, Take It Everywhere’, “… sells a basic version of the man’s bionic best friend for $2,700 (plus $1,000 in shipping) on its website and $4,899 on Amazon.”
That an off-the-shelf product, manufactured in China should be used for US Marine weapons development research has raised a few eyebrows among industry insiders. However, as one marine involved in the testing notes, the dog-robot is not the main aim of the research but is intended as a test platform for a proof-of-concept on how such weaponry could operate on the battlefield.
“[The animal] concept came from the fact it was to be used as a pack animal to haul payloads of various forms from point A to point B,” explains the US Marine spokesman Capt. Johnathon Huizar. Stating that the robot used was a ‘firing platform’ for a “Kairos remote trigger mechanism that was fixed to a M72AS light anti-tank weapon trainer”.
Watch the robot testing video here.
The testing is part of the Corps’ modernization initiative, called Force Design 2030, which aims to improve the service’s capability in fighting any future war against a peer-competitor, such as Russia or China. A key part of the program is the expanded deployment of drones and robots, both human-controlled and autonomous. As the Marine Corps Times reports, “[the Corps] has invested in quadcopters for infantry squads, robotic mules that lug gear, even, earlier in 2023, its first MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicle.”
This latest ‘dog’ testing was conducted in cooperation with the US Navy who have also been experimenting with robot ‘animals’ for cleaning hard to reach tanks and voids onboard ships, as well as in a firefighting capacity where safety limits prevent humans from approaching a fire’s source.
This research has found renewed intensity following the loss of the $1.2 billion USS Bonhomme Richard. The state-of-the-art ship was lost to fire in July 2020 when human fire-fighting crews had to escape to the pier for their own safety and could only watch as the vessel was destroyed by the flames. With robotic assistance, the Navy believes that the fire-teams could have saved the ship.
In the same way, the Marine Corps envisages these first designs of robotic combatants as supplementing and supporting regular fighting soldiers.
“We’re not trying to replace the warfighter,” explains Maj. Keenan Chirhart, who heads the US Marines’ intelligent robotics and autonomous systems office. “But we know that in the future, the warfighter is going to be augmented by teams of robotics and autonomous systems that operate in all domains.”
Given the fast pace that technology is changing the way war is fought, further experimentation on robotic weapons and weapon platforms is seen as essential work.
As a recent document, published by the Corps observes, “Marines must fight at machine speed or face defeat at machine speed.”