The Military’s Cutting Edge Robots and Drones

Cyber war is all the rage now, but advanced persistent threats are not the only cool thing that happens when you marry hardware and software together. Check out some of the latest tech that is coming down the pipe to a battlefield near you:

US Army A160 Hummingbird VTOL UAS

By early summer, the US Army will deploy three of these robotic helicopters to Afghanistan.

The U.S. Army is using a hybrid-type acquisition approach to develop a helicopter-like, Vertical-Take-Off-and-Landing Unmanned Aerial System with a so-called ARGUS wide-area surveillance sensor suite designed to beam back information and images of the surrounding terrain, service officials said.”

This unmanned eye in the sky will come packing a whopping 1.8-gigapixel color camera, and will be able to scan an area of about 25 miles.

To provide a sense of just how high-resolution this sensor is, Leininger compared it to a standard cell phone camera. A cell phone image typically runs between 1 million and 2 million pixels. With ARGUS-IS, it’s 900 to 1,800 times that number — enough to track people and vehicles from altitudes above 20,000 feet.”

USMC Kaman K-Max

This unmanned cargo helicopter is already in service in Afghanistan. Two were sent in August of last year for battlefield trials. One successfully completed an actual mission last month.

They will be used for resupplying troops in hard to get to or dangerous locations. The K-Max can be flown remotely or the more traditional way requiring a pilot:

K-MAX, which employs a unique counter-rotating, dual-rotor design that eliminates the need for a tail rotor, is capable of lifting 6,000 pounds, or nearly its own weight. Originally designed as a manned civilian craft, K-MAX has been modified by Lockheed to operate with or without a pilot onboard.”

The goal in Afghanistan is to reduce the number of manned convoys. Drone vehicles could eventually account for a large portion of resupply missions:

Pratson has said a single K-MAX helicopter could reduce reliance on convoys to resupply forward operating bases in Afghanistan by 6 percent. At that volume, a fleet of 16 to 20 aircraft theoretically could handle 100 percent of the resupply mission in Afghanistan, although that isn’t the plan for now.”

Robots of the Future

The military has already made heavy use of robots in detecting and disposing of explosive and IED devices. But the push is on to make these robots even more autonomous and intelligent. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific is working with the Naval EOD technology division to create the next generation robots.

According to the Department of the Navy’s October-December 2011 issue of CHIPS magazine, color and infrared technologies will be used to map an area and detect hostile targets or suspicious devices:

“The Autonomous Robotic Mapping System (ARMS), for example, can automatically explore an unknown or hostile environment while building a highly accurate and detailed map. A scanning laser rangefinder measures distance to all surrounding objects within a 360-degree field of view, and stereo cameras assist with three-dimensional rendering. No human guidance is necessary, other than initial high level direction telling the robot where to search.”

Military drones and robots currently save lives and with the demand for more and better platforms, they will increasingly take over more common and dangerous tasks making our troops safer and more effective.

Drone Wars – When Cyber War becomes Real

The race to create unmanned military equipment is in full furry. No ground robots were used during the Iraq War in 2003, but by 2008 there were about 12,000 in use there. Congress has required that one/third of all military ground vehicles be unmanned by 2015. Unmanned drones flown by pilots in the US are used daily in the hunt for terrorists in remote places in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Arial drone technology is advancing rapidly. The US is testing the X-47B prototype that will not only land on aircraft carriers but will also be able to be refueled while it is still in the air. A stealth drone (The RQ-170 Sentinel) not only exists, but has been used in service for several years now. At least one of these units provided live video and monitored Pakistani military communications during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout.

But the US is not the only country that has this technology. China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and about 45 other countries are either developing them or are buying them. Hezbollah has even joined the fray, reportedly using an Iranian designed system.

Much hype has been heard in the media about “Cyber Wars” but most of the instances cited so far point more to espionage or even at the most extreme case, sabotage.  The comparison to “war” really hasn’t been justified. But what if these automated machines could be compromised? What if a drone based virus could change friend from foe designations?

One would have to look first to see if there are any situations where military robots have acted erratic or have been acted upon by external sources. P.W. Singer’s “Wired for War” covers several of these instances.

According to his book numerous accounts have been made where electronic interference have affected these units. Several types of robots in service have been noted to spin or act erratically (called a “Crazy Ivan”) if it is near radio frequency interference. Humorous at best, but when the robots are armed it really isn’t that funny:

The Marine Corp’s Gladiator combat robot protoype (the one the size of a golf cart) also had a Crazy Ivan experience during its testing, driving about in a circle that left the marines at the excercise not knowing whether to laugh or run away.”

Electronic jammers used on US vehicles to prevent IED attacks have also wreaked havoc with military drones. According to Singer, the jammers can cause some drones to crash when they fly overhead. Prompting one army EOD team to call their Talon drone “Rainman the Robot.”

Also according to Singer, military robot manufacturers are using off the shelf components in some equipment and are being pressured to cut some corners in testing to get the units out into the field:

One engineer described “pressure to try to pass safety tests only with the paper version [of the robot’s design]; that is, no field tests.”

Militants have intercepted live video feeds from predator drones in the past, using $26 worth of off the shelf equipment. And recently a virus was found in military systems near computers used in piloting drones.

With many of our systems, military and civilian, under constant attack by foreign entities (even our satellites!), one would have to assume that automated military systems will eventually be targeted by our adversaries too.

Though currently no instances have been recorded of automated systems being infected or attacked, if code could be injected into these systems that allowed enemies to remote control them or change friend from foe designation, we may truly be on the verge of a real cyber war.

Nation State Hackers could Target Military Robots and Automated Systems

I enjoy computer security topics, but I also love robotics. I have been reading a very interesting book entitled “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution in the 21st Century“. And it has really made me think, what if hackers targeted a country’s automated defense systems?

Okay, before you think I have lost my mind, just hang with me for a minute and let me explain.

What are hackers going after now? Just read the headline news, some are targeting military, government and defense contractor sites. Well, what are our defense contractors and military working on now? According to the book, congress has created a requirement that 1/3 of ALL military ground vehicles be automated or unmanned by 2015. That is not too far away. Also, the airforce is busy creating unmanned stealth planes to add to it’s already numerous drone force.

Automation and autonomy seems to be the path our military is taking.

Are automated systems susceptible to malfunctions, glitches or software errors? Are there any instances recorded of these systems turning on their creator? Unfortunately, according to the book, yes.

A survey of American factories that use robots showed that 4 percent of them had “major robotic accidents”. Britain recorded 77 robot accidents in one year. And Japan’s Prime Minister Koizumi was even swung at by a malfunctioning robot during a tour of a factory.

In 1960 our Ballistic Missile Early Warning System detected a missile launch. It was not a launch at all, but the computer mistook the rising moon as a ballistic missile. In 1979, a wargame test program was accidentally loaded into the live launch detection system. Strategic bombers were almost scrambled before the error was caught.

In the 80’s, an automated prototype air defense system being displayed to visiting dignitaries targeted a port-a-potty instead of the helicopter flying down range.

In 2007, an automated computer linked anti-aircraft gun in South Africa malfunctioned and “began to fire wildly, spraying high-explosive shells at a rate of 550 a minute, swinging around through 360 degrees like a high-pressure hose.”

Several reports of robot systems (used overseas now) doing “Crazy Ivans” – turning around, and driving at you when they loose communication, are recorded in the book. Noah Shachtman, a tech journalist has said, “We’ve all had problems with our PCs freezing up, frying their little computer minds. That’s inconvenient. But it’s much more worrisome if it’s a laptop armed with an M-16.”

But what if enemy state backed hackers targeted these systems? Could they jam or even take over the systems?

According to the book, yes, it is a possibility. The author cites a US Army article written by Ralph Peters, where he:

… described how future wars would also include electronic “battles of conviction,” in which opposing combat systems would struggle to “convince” each other’s electronics to do things their own side doesn’t want. “Robot, drive yourself off a cliff.” Or, even worse, “Robot, recode all American soldiers and civilians as enemy combatants. Authorized to fire at will.”

Many of the robotic systems used in military applications are using off the shelf parts. One would have to ask, where are these parts manufactured? And are these systems protected against hardware, software and communication based attacks?

In the rush to remove American service members from harm, we must ensure that the automated systems that replace them are secure from subversion.