Warfare has dramatically evolved from stone-throwing to the atomic bomb. However, we are in the midst of a monumental shift in how future wars may be fought through the application of AI and robotics. 

Many see these advanced technologies as a natural evolution of warfare. As the military integrates such technology to weapons, we see more autonomous and unmanned combat systems that, not only will keep soldiers safer, but will reduce non-combatant casualties due to reduced human error and greater target accuracy. 

Auto-nomous

Today there are many applications of autonomous military weapons and surveillance systems. These systems can be found performing various combat roles from reconnaissance, search and rescue, explosive disarmament, remote-control missile launching, among other military applications. Perhaps the most well-recognized application that leverages autonomous robotic systems is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Similar to advanced drones, UAVs use vision sensors to provide soldiers with an aerial view of battlegrounds in situations where manned flight may be considered difficult or too risky. 

Over the next few years, the Pentagon is poised to spend nearly $1 billion for a range of robots designed to join our troops in combat situations. Thanks to rapid innovation in robotics, AI, and machine learning, the future of military systems will be quite remarkable. Although it’s hard to predict just how advanced these machines will be, in the coming years we can expect to see the evolution of ground-based systems advance immensely. This technology will have direct battlefield use, replacing things like tanks and soldiers, or at a minimum will allow soldiers to stay back at safer distances. Unlike UAVs, which face few obstacles in the air and offer good visuals, the success of land-based fighting vehicles will require enhanced AI and will incorporate a myriad of components like complex sensors to activate the AI and to navigate around obstacles such as buildings, rocks, trees, and the unknown.

Embedded vision

Perhaps one of the most significant advancements making way for autonomous robots has been the creation of embedded vision. Core to this technology is the integration of a small camera directly to a processing board as part of a larger system, such as a robot. Pairing these vision systems with robots allows manufacturing engineers and technicians to configure and deploy machine vision applications to enable robots to automate tasks without the need for conventional programming techniques. In the context of defense, embedded vision systems can allow robots to navigate rough terrain and interpret meaningful activity, such as an enemy troop movement. One company already succeeding in the development of such robots is Boston Dynamics, which leverages AI and machine learning to allow its quadruped robot Spot to understand and adapt its movements to its environment. 

An additional autonomous development in the area of guidance and navigation includes Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology, which operates by sending rapid pulses of laser light to a surface, then using a sensor to measure the amount of time it takes for each pulse to bounce back. These advances offer superior accuracy and the ability to see through masked and camouflaged items such as leaves and trees. In the context of military use, LiDAR technology can determine terrain of a battlefield and can locate enemy weapons such as tanks. 

In addition to developments in vision sensors, autonomous robots will become more human-like by embedding features like natural language processing (NLP) and voice recognition technology. NLP enables systems to interact with humans using natural language so the two can communicate effectively in real-time allowing robots to take instant orders from a soldier’s voice command without delays caused by the use of keyboards. Voice recognition technology will be equally important to our military in order to train robots to listen and react only to an identifiable soldier’s commands.  

As these technologies evolve and are embedded in robots, they will become the eyes and ears of the military. Once advanced AI-fed autonomous robots become ubiquitous, we will have the ability to fight wars from command stations miles, if not continents, away from the actual battlefield making for safer unmanned combat. And, as WWII was won with the Allies’ superior tanks, ships, and planes, those with the sharpest robots will win tomorrow’s war.