IAI fixes its gaze on ground robotics
Increasingly, planners with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) aim to shield soldiers from danger if an unmanned system is a very capable replacement – or even a better alternative in all circumstances.
Consequently, the slow but steady integration of robotic systems into fighting units is an answer to a major IDF operational requirement.
This creates a challenge and an opportunity for industry. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), for example, recently realigned its business structure to lend more emphasis to development of ground robotic systems.
‘Now we are getting into a new phase of developing a total robotic platform, from the wheel up,’ Zvi Yarom, general manager of the new division, told Shephard.
As an example, Yarom mentioned SAHAR, a suite of systems (pictured above) designed for IED detection and route clearing. This is a kit that can be ‘bolted on’ to any heavy platform such as the D-9 bulldozer or Bobcat.
Sensors included in the kit detect the hidden explosives and then the heavy vehicle performs the mission with its hydraulic tools.
Yarom added that this system enables accurate detection of threats and operations at significant standoff ranges, thereby enabling forces to rapidly advance on the ground.
‘The robotic kit can be adapted to a variety of platforms according to the operational environment,’ he said.
Another example is the REX cargo robot. This is a ‘combat porter’ that carries frontline soldiers’ equipment.
‘In this case the platform is a dedicated one. We want now to develop more of this type: systems that are designed for full robotic action,’ Yarom remarked.
REX is based on a small robotic platform that autonomously accompanies units of three to ten soldiers. It can carry a load of up to 400kg.
At the other end of the size scale, the biggest robotic system manufactured by IAI is the RoBattle – an unmanned, heavy-duty, highly manoeuvrable combat and support platform.
Operators can equip RoBattle with different payloads, including manipulator arms, ISR sensors and radars as well as remotely controlled weapons.
Via ELTA, IAI has also developed RoboCon as an autonomous convoy leader. Its capabilities include tracking and manoeuvring in different terrain, with the ability to detect and avoid obstacles.
Advanced ‘follow me’ capabilities in RoboCon enable the vehicle to lead manned and driverless vehicles alike.
'Now we are getting into a new phase of developing a total robotic platform, from the wheel up.'— Zvi Yarom, general manager of the Land Systems Division at ELTA Systems
While the IDF was arguably a pioneer of ground robotics for military use, it seems that many armed forces are understanding the potential of systems that can perform a range of battlefield tasks without putting lives at risk.
However, as these robotic systems become more sophisticated for ever more complex use cases, the question of full autonomy for armed combat unmanned ground vehicles is being raised again and again.
Current doctrine dictates that the robot detects and identifies a threat, leaving a human back in the command post to decide whether to engage.
Will that change in the future? Opinion is divided at the moment. While some experts say there will always need to be a human in the loop when it comes to pulling the trigger, others argue that as development of sensors and AI continues on an upward trajectory, fully autonomous killer machines will become an intrinsic element of combat formations.
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