Israel unveils unmanned armed combat robot

Alon Bernstein and Jack Jeffery, Associated Press

Posted Monday, September 13, 2021 at 5:54 a.m. EDT

Last updated Monday, September 13, 2021 at 5:54 a.m. EDT

LOD, Israel (AP) — An Israeli defense contractor on Monday unveiled a remote-controlled armed robot that he says can patrol combat zones, track infiltrators and open fire. The unmanned vehicle is the latest addition to the world of drone technology, which is rapidly reshaping the modern battlefield.

Proponents say such semi-autonomous machines allow armies to protect their soldiers, while critics fear it marks another dangerous step towards robots making life-and-death decisions.

The four-wheel-drive robot shown on Monday was developed by the “REX MKII” of state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries.

It is controlled by an electronic tablet and can be equipped with two machine guns, cameras and sensors, said Rani Avni, deputy head of the company’s autonomous systems division. The robot can gather intelligence for ground troops, transport injured soldiers and supplies in and out of battle, and strike nearby targets.

It is the most advanced of more than half a dozen unmanned vehicles developed by Aerospace Industries subsidiary ELTA Systems over the past 15 years.

The Israeli army currently uses a smaller but similar vehicle called a Jaguar to patrol the border with the Gaza Strip and help enforce a blockade imposed by Israel in 2007, after the tiny territory was seized by the Islamic militant group Hamas. .

Gaza is home to 2 million Palestinians who have been largely locked in by the blockade, which is also supported to some extent by Egypt. The border area is the scene of frequent protests and occasional attempts by Palestinian activists or desperate workers to infiltrate Israel.

According to the Israeli army’s website, the semi-autonomous Jaguar is equipped with a machine gun and was designed to reduce soldiers’ exposure to the dangers of patrolling the volatile border between Gaza and Israel. It is one of many tools, including drones armed with guided missiles, that have given the Israeli military vast technological superiority over Hamas.

Unmanned ground vehicles are increasingly being used by other militaries, including those of the United States, Britain and Russia. Their tasks include logistical support, mine clearance and weapons firing.

The tablet can control the vehicle manually. But many of its functions, including its movement and surveillance system, can also operate autonomously.

“With each mission, the device collects more data from which it then learns for future missions,” said Yonni Gedj, operations expert in the company’s robotics division.

Critics have raised concerns that robotic weapons could decide on their own, perhaps incorrectly, to fire at targets. The company says such capabilities exist but are not offered to customers.

“It is possible to make the weapon itself autonomous as well, however, that is a user decision today,” Avni said. “The maturity of the system or the user is not there yet.”

Bonnie Docherty, senior researcher in the arms division of Human Rights Watch, said these weapons are concerning because they cannot be trusted to distinguish between combatants and civilians or to make appropriate calls about the damage they are causing. attacks can do to nearby civilians.

“Machines cannot understand the value of human life, which essentially undermines human dignity and violates human rights laws,” Docherty said. In a 2012 report, Docherty, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, called for fully automated weapons to be banned under international law.

Defense magazine Janes said the development of autonomous land vehicles lags behind autonomous planes and boats because getting around on land is much more complex than navigating through water or air. Unlike on the high seas, vehicles must navigate “holes in the road” and know exactly how much force to apply to overcome a physical obstacle, the report says.

Self-driving vehicle technology has also raised concerns. Electric car maker Tesla, among other companies, has been linked to a series of fatal accidents, including an incident in Arizona in 2018 when a woman was struck by a car driving on autopilot.

The Israeli drone is being showcased this week at the Defense and Security System International arms fair in London.