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The future of war: Israel first to deploy fully automated military robots

An Israeli soldier stands next to a fully autonomous Border Protector UGV at a military base in southern Israel, on June 21, 2016. The UGVs were deployed to patrol the border with the Gaza Strip in mid-July. (Mainichi)

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) revealed to the Mainichi Shimbun that, beginning in mid-July, it has deployed fully automated self-driving military vehicles to patrol the border with the Palestinian-governed Gaza Strip. Next in the IDF's plans is to equip the vehicles with weapons such as machine guns, and deploy them in stages to Israel's frontiers with Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

Further in the future, the military is looking to form mixed combat units of robotic vehicles and human soldiers. At present, all weapons are controlled remotely by humans, but one autonomous vehicle maker told the Mainichi that even now, it is technologically possible to give the machines' artificial intelligence (AI) systems control of weapons as well.

This is the first time the IDF have revealed the deployment of its unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) to the news media. The military says the deployment is also the first of fully autonomous vehicles in the world.

In 2011, the United States military set out to build fully autonomous land vehicles, but none have yet entered active service. There is a lot of progress being made in driverless car technology in the civilian world, but military vehicles have a whole set of unique challenges to overcome. They need to be designed to drive through rugged off-road environments, and may be required to deal with various obstacles as well as the hazards of bombs and shells.

The IDF was also the first fighting force to deploy semi-autonomous military vehicles, when it began using them to patrol its approximately 60-kilometer border with the Gaza Strip in 2008. Israeli soldiers have been killed in this area by Hamas fighters, and so the IDF sought to create a fully autonomous UGV force to help keep its personnel out of harm's way.

The initiative led to the new Border Protector UGV, which began deployment in mid-July after finishing its test runs. The IDF won't say how many of the vehicles are in service. Even when semi-autonomous UGVs were doing patrols, they drove on their own along a preset route. However, they needed a human controller to take over if they encountered an obstacle, and two human operators were needed for each UGV. Border Protectors, however, have the ability to get around obstacles on their own.

The vehicle's "drive kit" system can apparently be installed in any vehicle. The eventual aim is a system that requires just one person to operate a number of UGVs, as long as the vehicles have been given a set of patrol orders to start with. The UGVs would also stream the information they collect to networked manned and unmanned land, sea and air vehicles in real time.

The head of the IDF's robotics development section told the Mainichi Shimbun that just one or two years ago, the military believed it would take 20-30 years to create large units of fully autonomous robots. Now, it is looking at introducing several robotic vehicles to every one of the IDF's large formations. The lieutenant colonel added that the IDF had also decided the machines should always be placed under the command of a human officer. In times of war, the robots could be sent ahead of human troops, shielding them from attack and scouting out safe routes. The IDF is also planning to entrust the robots with combat support roles, including fire support for human soldiers.

Israel's is not the only military striving to stay on the cutting edge of AI-driven military robots. The U.S., Russia, and China are all investing in research and development programs towards the creation of robot units. (By Tomoko Ohji, Jerusalem Bureau)

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