Israeli state-owned defense firm Israel Aerospace Industries has unveiled a remote-controlled armed robot it says can patrol combat zones, track infiltrators and open fire.
The unmanned vehicle revealed on Monday is the latest addition to the world of drone technology, which is rapidly reshaping the modern battlefield.
Supporters have said 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 presented on Monday was developed by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries “REX MKII”.
It is operated by an electronic tablet and can be fitted with two machine guns, cameras and sensors, said Rani Avni, deputy director of the company’s autonomous systems division. The robot can gather intelligence for ground troops, transport wounded soldiers and supplies into and out of battle, and attack 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 IDF is currently using 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 Hamas seized power there.
Gaza is home to two million Palestinians who were largely locked up by the blockade, which is also supported to some extent by Egypt. The border area is the site of frequent protests and occasional attempts by Palestinian fighters or desperate workers to enter Israel.
According to the IDF website, the semi-autonomous Jaguar is equipped with a machine gun and was designed to reduce the exposure of soldiers 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 IDF vast technological superiority over Hamas.
Unmanned ground vehicles are increasingly used by other militaries, notably those of the United States, United Kingdom and Russia. Their tasks include logistical support, demining and firing of weapons.
The tablet can control the vehicle manually. But many of its functions, including its motion and monitoring system, can also operate on its own.
“With each mission, the device collects more data which it then learns for future missions,” said Yonni Gedj, operations expert in the company’s robotics division.
Critics have expressed concerns that robotic weapons could decide on their own, possibly wrongly, to fire at targets. The company said such capabilities exist but are not offered to customers.
“It is possible to make the weapon itself stand-alone as well, however, that is a decision of the user 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 worrying because they cannot be trusted to distinguish between combatants and civilians or to make appropriate appeals about the damage that attacks can cause civilians nearby.
“Machines cannot understand the value of human life, which in essence violates human dignity and violates human rights laws,” Docherty said. In a 2012 report, Docherty, a professor at Harvard Law School, called for a ban on fully automated weapons under international law.
Defense magazine Janes said the development of autonomous land vehicles has lagged behind autonomous planes and boats because moving on land is much more complex than navigating water or air. Unlike on the high seas, vehicles have to face “holes in the road” and know exactly how much force to apply to overcome a physical obstacle, according to the report.
Autonomous vehicle technology has also raised concerns. Electric car maker Tesla, among other companies, has been linked with a series of fatal crashes, including an incident in Arizona in 2018 when a woman was struck by a car traveling on autopilot.
The Israeli drone is presented this week at the international defense and security arms fair in London.