Major military powers are racing to embrace weapons that select and fire on targets without meaningful human control. This is raising the specter of immoral, unaccountable, largely uncontrollable weapon systems killer robots. It is also driving fears of widespread proliferation and arms races leading to global and regional instability, Human Rights Watch said in a statement released on Thursday.
"There is increasing recognition that it's time to ring the alarm on these weapons systems. This month in Paris, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a new international treaty to ban killer robots, stating that "machines that have the power and discretion to kill without human intervention are politically unacceptable and morally despicable,"" the statement said.
At last week's meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) at the UN in Geneva, there was no progress made towards launching negotiations on a treaty to ban or restrict fully autonomous weapons. Instead, members agreed to spend the next two years developing a "normative and operational framework" to address concerns raised by such weapons systems.
"This vague objective falls far short of what's needed. Dozens of countries wish to negotiate a treaty to retain human control over the use of force, including 30 states that want a treaty banning killer robots. Yet, a handful of military powers, most notably Russia and the United States, block any movement in the direction of a legally binding instrument," HRW said.
Geopolitics were on stark display at the CCW meeting. The U.S. was mostly silent. Russia both dominated the discussions and attempted to exclude civil society from key sessions. China is playing both sides of the issue. Although it reiterated its desire to negotiate a treaty around the weapons systems, China is also among the nations most advanced in pursuing such weapons.
The next CCW meeting on killer robots will take place in six months. Meanwhile, other initiatives are working to build support for a treaty to ban killer robots. Brazil will hold a symposium on killer robots in Rio de Janiero in February, while the advocacy group, Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, will meet in Buenos Aires at the end of that month.
"Within less than a decade, the killer robots have become one of the most pressing threats to humanity. There are signs that the public strongly supports regulation now. The only appropriate response is to launch negotiations to ban killer robots," HRW said.
Meantime the United States Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is upgrading its Legged Locomotion and Movement Adaptation (LLAMA) robot, with an effort to boost speed and mobility through system weight reduction. According to Analytics Insight, in mid-September, the U.S.-ARL divulged the autonomous quadruped system, highlighting its ability to work in concert with soldiers, easing their physical workloads and augmenting their mobility, protection, and lethality.
As the system was developed as part of ARL's Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance (RCTA) initiative, this programme initially focused on wheeled and tracked platforms along with the development of the intelligence and perception of autonomous systems. According to ARL research Engineer Jason Pusey, a quadruped robotic platform would provide new mobility options in support of dismounted soldiers. "The goal is to effectively develop a 'robotic dog' that works as part of a team with human operators," he said.
While the first version of LLAMA weighs about 85 kg, a new 75 kg variant is currently in the developing phase. This lower weight allows increased mobility along with greater speed and endurance. However, the use cases for LLAMA have not yet been fully defined, but Army Research Laboratory is targeting roles in surveillance and as a platform that can carry payloads, enabling soldiers to offload some of their gear onto this particular platform.
Legged Locomotion and Movement Adaptation (LLAMA) robot would be able to operate as part of a soldiers' group but it would also have the capacity to function autonomously. The soldiers could give the robot a command, for instance, to travel to a certain point, and LLAMA would perform this independently, the Analytics Insight report said.
The U.S. Army Research Laboratory isn't just focused on the mobility of the system but on its intelligence as well. Both aspects are significant to enable the robot to navigate more complex terrain, a key demand for the quadruped design.
This is not the first time the U.S. Army is experimenting with robots for their squad. Recently, a business unit of General Dynamics General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) revealed its proposal for the U.S. Army's Robotic Combat Vehicle acquisition project.
As part of the Army's Next-Generation Combat Vehicle program, Analytics Insight says, the new Robotic Combat Vehicles (RCVs) will join the 'big six' priorities of the service that consists of long-range precision fires, Future Vertical Lift, the network, air and missile defense, and Soldier lethality.
As per the reports, the new combat vehicles also will have cutting-edge features such as a remote turret for the 25 mm main gun or more lethality weapon systems, 360-degree situational awareness cameras and advanced remote stations. These RCVs will also be able to keep pace with soldiers and other armored vehicles during off-road maneuver and movement on paved streets and highways.
(Photo credit: U.S. Army Research Laboratory).