The IDF’s newest recruit: I, Robot
Israel's army is deploying robots on a variety of missions to reduce risks to soldiers' lives, but the days of a fully robotic army are a long way off.
"A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." So states the First Law of Robotics as written by famed science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov in his 1942 short story "Runaround."
Despite Asimov's directives, robots today have found a place in many armies around the world, filling key defensive and even offensive positions. In the several years, dozens of robots have enrolled in the Israeli Defense Forces, serving in all branches and taking on high-risk tasks that, for humans, might be life-threatening.
For scouting tasks along the Gaza border, for example, robots are considered an additional tool for soldiers patrolling the area: unmanned vehicles with reconnaissance equipment execute daily scan and search missions to verify that no enemy forces have penetrated the fence or laid explosives.
"We are trying to bring robots to a place where they have a higher level of operational efficiency," says IDF Col. Nessim Levy, head of the IDF's motorized systemsdepartment of the Ground Forces Technology Brigade. "Whenever contact is made at the fence, for example, instead of having soldiers go over there, we can send robots."
Robots are currently in development to both identify threats and respond to them – tracking and neutralizing suspicious targets. One of the main advantages to robots is that while soldiers must be relieved of duty every once in a while, robots can remain in the field at all times. Additionally they can more accurately and easily identify changes in the environment by comparing it with past data in their system. Surveillance responsibilities aside, the robots with the longest service in the IDF are those that remove bombs in place of humans.
"The long-term vision is that robots will increase the efficiency of IDF operational capabilities" says Levy. "The longer-term vision is that robots will be able to replace soldiers for routine and wearying tasks."
In addition to patrolling the ground, some robots have taken to the sky. One group of robots serves as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, which are increasingly taking the place of human pilots in militaries around the world. In the United States, hundreds of aircraft operators set out to reach their targets in distant locales, like Afghanistan and Iraq, without ever leaving the state of New Mexico. Today, the American air force trains more UAV operators than actual fighter and bomber pilots combined.
A big obstacle today, according to Levy, isn't technological. Rather it’s perceptual. According to Levy, the IDF needs to change its operational philosophy about integrating robots and humans.
The lone robots that the army already uses on the Gaza border are technological prototypes that help IDF commanders define their operational needs and to build an operational philosophy. "It's a complex challenge to introduce a new system into an existing structure," says Levy.
Additionally, the function of the robots needs to improve so they become more predictable operating in harsh field conditions. But logistic considerations aside, their ability to reduce risk to troops’ lives is invaluable.
"If a robot can prevent, solve or save us from an incident involving harm to a soldier, I don't know how to quantify this in terms of concrete monetary figures," says Levy.
Unsurprisingly, the key factor preventing more robots from entering the IDF is financial. According to Levy, the cost for the robots isn't high, relatively speaking, but their implementation is still limited by budget constraints.
"The desire was to introduce this more rapidly and expansively," he says. "But at the end of the day, there aren't enough funds to allow us to do what we want."
'We prefer to work with Israeli companies'
For newly drafted (human) soldiers, controlling robots doesn't require a lot of training – especially for those used to playing video and computer games. With the new robots, commands are made with a Sony Playstation joystick.
"This is an advantage that new soldiers have,” says Lt.-Col. Leon Altarac, head of the robotics department of the Ground Forces Technology Brigade. “After several hours of instruction, the soldier controls the robot.”
The robotics department is responsible for the development and promotion of robotics within the IDF and forging ties with the civilian robotics industry. Among other things, the department develops control systems based on Windows and other computer operating systems. Additionally, product safety trials are conducted before the robots are approved for action in the field.
The IDF robotics development program cooperates with defense industry companies in Israel and the United States as well. The unmanned vehicles that operate on the Gaza border, for example, are produced by a joint venture between Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit Systems and Genius, a subsidiary company of the two. Another robot in IDF service, EyeDrive, which is used for tactical reconnaissance tasks, is developed by the local company ODF Optronics.
According to Altarac, there is an advantage to cooperating with Israeli companies because of their sensitivity to the needs of the IDF. "We prefer to work with Israeli companies in terms of quality of work,” he says. “It's also more convenient."
For example, during the process of developing the EyeDrive, ODF Optronics presented a prototype to which the IDF was able to add specifications and follow along in the development process.
American companies, on the other hand, work according to guidelines set by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,a body that supports the development of new military technologies, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Defense Department. As a result, it can take years before the products are approved and there is less flexibility and coordination with Israeli needs.
Still, Altarac points out that American defense companies are receptive to IDF input. The significant advantage of working with American companies is the easy access to U.S. military funds.
Special training for mini robots
In addition to the larger vehicular robotics used along the Gaza border or the flying drones, there are also smaller robots that enter the IDF with a different role. These robots, dubbed "soldier carried systems," are like toy cars operated by advanced remote controls.
According to Altarac, marketing efforts are underway to promote the mini robots. The goal is to have hundreds of them, but once again, army budget difficulties are getting in the way.
To facilitate the use of the mini robots, a custom vest has been made with a compartment to carry the robot and its accompanying controller at all times, enabling soldiers to deploy the robot to gather info in dangerous places without physically putting themselves there.
During Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, in 2008, the IDF used dozens of these miniature robots to enter and scan buildings to check for booby traps before human forces entered.
"You arrive prepared with a picture of what it is going on in the house," says Altarac. "Even when fighting outside a house, you know what’s around the corner."
The EyeDrive is a robot with such a mission. It is a modification of a previous tool – the EyeBall – with a rotating camera that could map out any room it was tossed into. After it was discovered that the EyeBall could get stuck under a chair, desk or bed, the device was put on a wheeled platform and became the EyeDrive.
The EyeDrive, a small device weighing in at only 2.5 kilograms and equipped with five cameras to provide a panoramic image, is built so that soldiers can dangle or throw it on the ground in places inaccessible by wheels. It’s controlled by either a joystick or a touch-screen display that is programmed with a mock-up of the target location. Even if the robot flips over, it continues to transmit a picture.
Each robot costs tens of thousands of dollars. Some have already been put into operational use with infantry units. The goal, according to Altarac, is to introduce these robots into service en masse, in the hundreds, in the near future.
Another soldier carried device is the iRobot Packbot Explorer, an American-built robot used for reconnaissance, which is already in service among the Special Operations Engineering Unit and infantry units in the U.S. Army. The Packbot does what many of the other mini robots do – gather info ahead of a soldier’s arrival – but its EOD model includes an additional mechanism to disarm bombs. A larger model can even climb stairs and small hills. Commands are given via wireless communication or, when not available, fiber-optic communication. Navigation and operation are controlled by joystick and the robot is connected to a computer interface that presents data regarding the robot's battery consumption, communications and the image received from its cameras.
The robot also includes thermal imagining and a microphone and loudspeakers so as to communicate with people in the vicinity. The cost for this kind of robot is between $100,000 and $200,000 per unit, depending on its manufacturer and the specific add-ons.
"During the Iraq War, these robots proved themselves,” says Altarac, noting that almost every reconnaissance patrol vehicle in the U.S. Army has one.
Humans and robots, working in harmony
"We are developing the building blocks in the field of robotics," says Altarac. "In general, the accessories are of our own design because we tailor them to the needs of each unit.”
Two years ago, one of these homegrown accessories, the Agamit from Elbit Systems, participated in a robotics competition in the United States and won first place. The Agamit is a module that can be connected to another robot, allowing it to map the layout of a building or inside a tunnel where the robot would normally have communication difficulties. With Agamit, the robot can also provide a two- or three-dimensional map of its surroundings, rendered by its three laser scanners.
"It was the only robot there that could enter a home, map out its features and leave, completely independently," says Altarac. "It knows how to identify obstacles and it stops if it identifies a moving figure." Agamit is qualified for operational use, but at present there is only one unit in IDF service, perhaps in light of its cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At this point, the day when robots replace humans in the IDF is a long way off, but that doesn’t appear to be the goal anyway.
"Our vision isn't that robots will take the place of humans,” says Levy, “rather that humans and robots will work together. Robots will replace humans for certain tasks. This is the goal. In another 20 years we will be using robots in ways we haven't even thought of today."