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The Art of War-Robots, Bionics and Smart Weapons
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Action thrillers are packed with super-weapons and gadgets, but the real-life army forces are keeping up the pace. With the recent developments in fields like bionics, robotics or “smartwear”, it was just a matter of time before the military would use in combat. As it always happens, the “legal killing” industry raises numerous ethical dilemmas and debates, but nothing stops technology on its way to better, faster, stronger, smarter.

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In the future, even the least skilled soldier could hit a target as far as almost one kilometer away, thanks to “precision-guided firearms”. TrackingPoint Inc launched a “smart rifle” that promises to be a game-changer. One of these costs as much as $27.000, and during SHOT Show, the largest gun show in the USA, an official from the Texas-based company confirmed that the military bought several kits for evaluation.

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When TrackingPoint unveiled their super-rifle at a shooting range in Boulder City, novice shooters hit a target more than 900 meters away after just a few minutes of instruction. When professional snipers and sharpshooters have a first-shot success rate of 20 to 30 percent at such a distance, a 70 percent success rate with inexperienced shooters sounds like science fiction.

So what is the secret?

The firearm features a Linux-powered computer and sensors that collect imagery and ballistic data such as atmospheric conditions, while wind data must be entered manually. Its computer is wireless-enabled, allowing information streaming on any laptop, smartphone or tablet. The shooting experience is also extremely high-tech. When the shooter looks through the scope, he/she can push a button to tag a target, much like one would tag a friend in Facebook photos. As the rifle calculates the bullet’s expected trajectory, a reticule appears and enables shooting. TrackPoint rifles can also communicate with each other, enabling shooters to pass off targets to fellow soldiers who happen to be in a better position at the crucial moment.

The company designed and built the rifle for the commercial market, and more than 500 pieces have been sold, but the US military already started testing it to study how average troops perform with it compared to expert snipers shooting traditional rifles. One might naturally worry about deranged civilians becoming instant snipers with it, but experts also highlight the advantages: if soldiers hit targets more accurately, innocent civilians are less likely to be hit accidentally.


Other research is inspired by a more and more popular gadget: Google Glass. The US Navy’s research office is developing a special display to overlay computer-generated information onto real-world imagery. The “Head Worn Display Augmented Reality” is intended for training, but the technology might be expanded into wearable cameras and other hands-free military gadgets.

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Ideally, high-definition displays will be incorporated into lenses as thin as those of regular eyeglasses, all comfortable and reliable enough to be worn and operated for a long time. The Navy offered eyewear company Vuzix a research grant to integrate optics similar to those of the Google Glass into a standard pair of military goggles. Partnering with heavy duty military display manufacturer Six15 Technologies, Vuzix aims to adapt its technology for military use. The New York Police Department is already beta-testing Google Glass on emergency first responders, as the integrated HD camera could facilitate valuable hands-free communication in critical situations.

Two years ago, DARPA, the military research branch of the Defence Department, launched a public call for the development of an Android-based system that could integrate streams from multiple cameras and send the processed data to a display mounted on either a helmet or a rifle, as well as to fellow soldiers and command centers. The wearable ”Predator Vision” system would include both the entire visual spectrum and the IR spectrum, creating composite images and delivering them straight to wearable displays. The displays would also be quite an achievement, as they are supposed to be readable in direct sunlight as well as discreetly in darkness. “Predator Vision” would additionally feature face recognition software, allowing troops to ”mark” potential enemy, ally or neutral individuals and share data with fellow soldiers.

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But the Holy Grail of high-tech military gear is the military robot. In one form or another, they date back to World War II, when Germans used the “Goliath” to track landmines, but modern warfare industry is constantly working towards an autonomous, highly efficient, almost indestructible “artificial soldier”. Aptly titled “Unmanned Effects: Taking the Human out of the Loop”, a study by Project Alpha, a U.S. Joint Forces Command idea analysis group, claims that autonomous, networked robots will become the norm on the battlefield by 2025.

“The robots will take on a wide variety of forms, probably none of which will look like humans,” says Dr. Russ Richards, Project Alpha’s director. “Some will look like vehicles. Some will look like airplanes […] some will have no physical form – software intelligent agents or cyberbots.”

The US Military currently uses the aerial IAI Pioneer & RQ-1 Predator vehicle, which can carry air-to-ground missiles and can be remotely operated. The "Dragon Fire II", an experimental weapons system, was also a promising innovation, capable of automating the loading and ballistics calculations for accurate fire, with a response time of only 12 seconds. Autonomous fighter jets and bombers are also a field of interest, as they could perform maneuvers otherwise impossible on manned flights, due to the high G-Force. Moreover, losing a plane would not mean losing a life. But all these developments still require human input to some extent, and only future advances in artificial intelligence could help take the industry further.

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MIDARS is a four-wheeled robot featuring several cameras, a radar, and potentially a firearm, and the military uses it for automatic random or pre-programmed patrols on military base grounds. If it detects movement in an unauthorized area, it will alert its human supervisors, which can instruct it whether to ignore the event or take defensive action. Another experimental system is the Autonomous Rotorcraft Sniper, an experimental robotic weapon which the US Army has been working on since 2005. A remotely operated sniper rifle is attached to an unmanned autonomous helicopter, developed to be used primarily in urban combat.

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An MIT team created the M-Block, a modular robot system that could pave the way for self-assembling robots. The 50 millimetres high M-Blocks have no visible parts, but manage to propel themselves forward, jump, roll, or even climb over one another thanks to an inner flywheel that generates movement when braked. Each face and edge of a cube is equipped with an intelligent magnet system, enabling them to attach to each other and align into position with no outside intervention.

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Surprisingly, they operate as a team, showing “cooperative group behaviour”. If one is lost from the group, it could easily find its way back. In theory, multiple cubes could collaborate to move larger, assembled structures, and further down the road they could also feature special tools like batteries, lights or cameras. This low-tech solution gained plenty of attention, as previous sophisticated initiatives have failed in the pursuit of self-assembling robots.


In 2006, DARPA launched a program to accelerate advances in prosthetics and help veterans who have lost a limb in combat. Aiming to improve user control over the artificial limb, DARPA created the most advanced prosthetic arm so far.

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Although made of metal, it weights as much as a human arm, and it relies on sensors that send signals to the brain. The main challenge was to connect the arm to the patient’s central nervous system, but wearers could now activate individual fingers, twist their wrist or even feel the object they grasp, thanks to a sensitive but resistant “skin” – so realistic that it even wrinkles over time.

Interestingly, US researchers are developing a real-life Robocop to patrol the streets and fight crime. The “ PatrolBot “ would also donate its mechanical limbs to officers who have lost their own during service. And with such bionic technology in the military’s back yard, one could easily see this happening.

Militaries around the world are very excited to replace soldiers with autonomous robots, but concerns grow, especially now that drones are blurring the line between warfare and video games. Raytheon’s Phalanx gun system, used by the U.S. Navy, can identify and destroy enemy missiles by itself, while the plane-sized drone Northrop Grumman can take off, land, carry combat and refuel without a pilot. In South Korea, a Samsung sentry robot can detect suspicious activity, challenge intruders and even open fire with a human authorisation.

Fully autonomous machines that make life or death decisions by themselves could be a reality in 20-30 years, and Human Rights Watch demands a worldwide ban. Since 2009, experts started debating the hypothetical possibility that such machines become self-sufficient and able to make decisions, and how much would this threaten humans. The signs are there: some robots are now able to find power sources on their own, while certain computer viruses are capable of avoiding elimination, having achieved “cockroach intelligence”.

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Published by Andreea Dobre


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