“Buddy Pairs”: Robo-Dogs in Olive Green

 By Shreya Das Barman

The genie is out of the bottle. We need to move forward on artificial intelligence development, but we also need to be mindful of its very real dangers. I fear that AI may replace humans altogether….

Stephen Hawking, Interview with Wired, November 2017[1]

Artificial Intelligence (AI), is the ‘new normal’ of the 21st Century. Its main aim is to improve efficiency in whichever field it is applied to, as also to reduce physical and mental stress and enable more accuracy in action. One of the most common usage of AI is in the field of robotics. Robots are simply machines that are capable of carrying out complex set of actions either automatically, or with limited control of humans. The aim of this article is not to delve too much into the technical details of robots, but to state the possible usage of robots for national security, in this case, by inducting them into the army.

The induction of robots in active field operations is quite a challenging task. The robots need to be programmed in such a way so that it meets the needs of the army. However, in this age of AI, it is not a ‘mission impossible’ sort a thing. Taking on a different view from the need and discussion on humanoid robots, one should consider inducting robot dogs into the army. The concept of robot dogs is not new, as is evident from the fact that, in the year 2005, US-developed BigDog[2] and SpotMini[3] robots, with an aim that, it would serve the US military (US Marines to be specific) sometime in the future. However, the BigDog was later discontinued, for various issues, one of which was the noise[4] that it created and SpotMini is still in the trial stage. In comparison to the humanoid robots, robot dogs are smaller in size and swifter and can enter areas that are narrow. These dogs could be a suitable replacement for German Shepherds, Swiss Mountain dogs, etc. that are being currently used by the Indian Army.

The robo-dogs could act as “buddy pairs” of the soldiers. The dogs so used, could be an additional force in active battlefields or in other search and rescue operations. Additionally, they could be used to transport loads from one place to another, like carrying of arms and ammunition, construction materials, explosives, etc. However, extra care needs to be taken, so as to avoid the misuse of such robo-dogs carrying materials.

The robo-dogs couldact as the‘first line of defence’ before the actual operation,in the sense that, robo-dogs could be used  to thoroughly scan the area of operation before executing the final plan. As is well known, an idea of the entry and exit points of an area is very crucial for the success or failure of any operation. In such cases, robo-dogs, who are fitted with omnidirectional cameras (360 degree cameras) , as well as night vision cameras, could be send to the areas ‘under the radar’ so that they can capture the virtual image of the area, which could be used by the army to plan the blueprint of the operation accordingly, as the safety of the soldiers is equally important in an operation.They would also be required to be programmed with mechanisms like climbing the stairs, etc.

In the field of surveillance, they could act as a ‘mitochondrion force’ in the sense, The dogs so programmed, could move around in ‘red alert’ areas and capture pictures of suspected terrorists , which could later be used by the Army to plan ‘elimination’ operations as an when time comes. For activities like this, the different wings of Intelligence agencies (RAW, DI, IB, NIA etc) needs to come together and work as a united group.The robo-dogs could have an in-built sound recorder, that would be capable of recording all the sounds (like people speaking, the sound of water, etc) , so that a virtual image of the entire area is created and studied, before planning an operation. This could give a good of the people and the culture of that particular area. For instance, if the robo-dogs records sound of school bells in a particular area, then it is evident that there is a school situated in that area, which makes the area vulnerable for terrorist activities, as it could not be denied that terrorist do target schools to achieve their goal i.e. causing maximum damage. In case, the area has a water body present, then terrorists might try to poison the water body so as to kill maximum people and so on.

The option of using robo-dogs for laying booby traps could also be explored, however, its chances of success are very low. Also, GPS and digital mapping is to be installed into the robo-dogs, so that it can be easily tracked, and it knows where it is going. Additionally, they could be used in bomb disposal activities (on similar lines with Daksh). This would reduce the chances of human casualty and avoid circumstances like the Pathankot airbase blast (2016) where we lost one NSG commando, while he was trying to defuse the grenade[5].

However, before the induction of robot dogs into the Army, many challenges are to be faced. First and foremost, soldiers are required to be trained to handle robot dogs. Human-robot contact plays a significant role here. It is not easy to work with machines, as it would require constant monitoring, and the person handling it should also be technically sound, as a machine could malfunction anywhere and anytime.  In other words, humans need to be acclimatised to handle and work with robots just as they work with their human counterparts.

Researchers should also explore the options of the effects of weather and smoke grenades or white phosphorous bombs on robo-dogs (smoke grenades are usually used for signaling purposes; the reaction of robo-dogs to smoke grenades needs to be studied).Usually, steel which is the main component used in robots, are resistant to extreme conditions, however, the metal’s behavior, when it comes in contact with such bombs needs to be researched upon. Also, things like’ self-dismantling’ of a robot, when caught by an adversary, should also be studied.

There is also a possibility of robo-dogs getting hacked or a bug being fitted into them (by the adversary), which could be dangerous and at times could lead to missions being failed , soldiers being taken as hostages and in extreme circumstances, casualties being reported. The lifespan of the robo-dogs are to be studied as also the cost and weight of the robo-dogs, which could prove to be disadvantageous, but it could be modified with time.

It should also be kept in mind that, if robo-dogs are programmed to fire at specific targets, then the risk of collateral damage cannot be ignored. Also, the issue of accountability will also have to be factored in, i.e. who will claim responsibility for the proper and accurate programming of the robo-dogs.

Notwithstanding the disadvantages, the Army should explore the possibilities of inducting robo-dogs in field operations, as these would to some extent reduce the casualties that we suffer from and would also prove to be time-saving in some operations at least. Also, there is no need to leave the robo-dogs in dog shelters post-retirement. They could be easily disassembled and kept in national museums for viewing or simply modified and given a new form or in the worst case, destroyed completely. Also, the risk of dogs getting infected by any virus or any other elements would be reduced, if robo-dogs are inducted. Hence, it is time to embrace the technological era, for the betterment of our forces; whether robo-dogs would turn out to be a boon or a curse, only time will unfold!!

Notes :

 [1] João Medeiros , Stephen Hawking: ‘I fear AI may replace humans altogether’ , Wired ,28 November 2017. Accessed on 13 May 2020. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/stephen-hawking-interview-alien-life-climate-change-donald-trump

[2] BigDog four-legged robot now sports throwing arm, BBC News, 1 March 2013. Accessed on 13 May 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-21630212

[3] David Reid , Boston Dynamics’ robot dog isn’t quite ready for the US military says this analyst , CNBC, 22 November 2017. Accessed on 13 May 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/22/boston-dynamics-robot-dog-isnt-ready-for-the-us-military.html

[4] Alex Hern, US marines reject BigDog robotic packhorse because it’s too noisy, The Guardian, 30 December 2015. Accessed on 13 May 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/dec/30/us-marines-reject-bigdog-robot-boston-dynamics-ls3-too-noisy

[5] PTI, Pathankot attack: NSG commando Lt Col Niranjan killed, Rajnath Singh says ‘nation salutes his sacrifice’,The Indian Express, 3 January 2016. Accessed on 14 May 2020. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/pathankot-attack-nsg-commando-lt-col-niranjan-killed-rajnath-singh-says-nation-salutes-his-sacrifice/