Robot dogs are taking over the US military
Who let the dogs out?
It’s been nearly three years since robot dogs first made their operational debut alongside U.S. service members at an American military base, and the quadrupedal sensor platforms have found a growing number of new applications as an extra pair of “eyes and ears” for troops across the armed forces.
According to images posted to the U.S. military’s Defense Visual Information Distribution Service on Feb. 24, Cape Cod Space Force Station last week became the latest military installation to receive semi-autonomous quad-legged unmanned ground vehicles ( Q-UGVs), or robot dogs, to enhance perimeter security at the Massachusetts base.
Developed by robotic security firm Asylon under a Phase I Small Business Innovation Research contract awarded in January “for the augmentation of military working dogs,” the new Q-UGVs were adopted to “maintain high tempo perimeter security operations for deterrence and real-time intelligence” at the Space Force station, according to the Air Force.
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Asylon is a relatively new player, alongside military-focused power player Ghost Robotics and commercial golden boy Boston Dynamics, in the U.S. military’s growing ecosystem of robot dogs. Initially piloted by Naval Special Warfare Command, the four-legged robots have been a fixture of Air Force installations since 2020 when the 325th Security Forces Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida began experimenting with Ghost Robotics’ ‘Vision 60’ Q-UGVs to “significantly increase situational awareness for defenders” before taking delivery of a raft of four robodogs in mid-2021, a first for a U.S. military base.
The Ghost Robotics Q-UGVs in particular are designed to bring a package of electro-optical, acoustic, and other sensors to bear across any challenging terrain and in the toughest of environmental conditions, according to the Air Force.
Robot dogs “are going to become used more and more in spaces where you really need legs to operate, a combination of being able to go across rugged terrain and navigate through a human-designed world” of stairs and doorways, Peter Singer, New America Foundation fellow and co-author of Likewar: The Weaponization of Social Media, told Task & Purpose.
As our colleagues at The War Zone previously reported, Ghost Robotics in particular envisions its Q-UGVs as capable of hosting a number of unique sensor payloads suited to a variety of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) roles.
“These dogs will be an extra set of eyes and ears while computing large amounts of data at strategic locations throughout Tyndall Air Force Base,” 325th SFS commander Maj. Jordan Criss said in 2020 during initial testing of the Ghost Robotics Q-UGVs at that installation. “They will be a huge enhancement for our defenders and allow flexibility in the posting and response of our personnel.”
That “enhancement” goes far beyond mere surveillance. The same year that Tyndall began experimenting with robot dogs for base security, airmen from the 621st Contingency Response Group at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada employed Ghost Robotics Q-UGVs during an agile combat employment exercise that saw airmen scramble to secure an austere airfield against a simulated hostile attack.
During that exercise, the robot dogs fed targeting data to U.S. military assets on the other side of the country through the Air Force’s brand-new Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), so far that the Q-UGVs were “part of the kill chain and provided real-time strike targeting data to USAF operators,” as the late Ghost Robotics co-founder and CEO Jiren Parikh told our colleagues at The War Zone in a December 2020 interview.
“In the end, the robot itself is just a delivery system for sensors that gather information about the world and effectors that make change in the world, whether it’s picking something up or blowing something up,” as Singer put it.
Providing persistent, semi-autonomous perimeter security and augmenting the ISTAR capabilities of U.S. service members deployed to global hotspots appear logical missions for robot dogs, but in the years since their adoption at Tyndall and other Air Force installations, the employment of Q-UGVs has expanded beyond merely patrolling sensitive installations.
In mid-July, for example, the 5th Civil Engineer Squadron Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) team at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota debuted robot dogs to replace both warfighters and military working dogs in “certain situations,” according to the service. As Minot’s Northern Sentry put it, these Q-UGVs will allow airmen “to react to CBRN threats downrange without risking the safety of themselves or others.”
“With this dog, we can strap on equipment and send it down to the scene,” 5th CES Senior Airman Karen Augustus told Minot Daily News of the new Q-UGV. “It has cameras on it so we can see what’s going on beforehand. It’s going to help us eliminate the risk to airmen’s lives.”
That same logic applies to explosive ordnance disposal missions. As of 2020, Ghost Robotics had teamed up with EOD technology manufacturer Zero Point to slap the latter’s TITAN disruptor solution on the former’s Q-UGVs for potentially handling explosive devices downrange, sparing service members from a potentially dangerous situation.
“The vast majority of our customers are using [Q-UGVs] or developing applications for [CBRN], reconnaissance, target acquisition, confined space and subterranean inspection, mapping, EOD safety, wireless mesh networks, perimeter security, and other applications where they want a better option than tracked and wheeled robots that are less agile and capable,” as Parikh told IEEE Spectrum in an October 2021 interview.
The robot dog’s mission set keeps expanding. In late July, following the Q-UGV’s debut at Minot, the Space Force introduced their own raft of friendly Ghost Robotics quadrupeds to provide beachside security, launch mishap response, and Hurricane Condition alert team augmentation for the Space Launch Delta 45 units responsible for space launch operations at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
“Using the Q-UGVs as automated damage assessment and patrol robots, we save significant man hours which could be allocated to other activities requiring human logic and decision making,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Kimberly Rumph, superintendent of innovation and technology at Cape Canaveral, at the time.
Then, in mid-August, the Coast Guard debuted a batch of “droid” robot dogs to “combat the distribution of Weapons of Mass Destruction” at the service’s Honolulu base in Hawaii, demonstrating the Q-UGV’s capabilities when it comes to “locating, removing, and decontaminating” potentially dangerous “specimens” and U.S. service members, according to photos released by the service, although few details were available regarding the nature of those missions.
Finally, in late August, Naval Surface Warfare Center, Philadelphia Division debuted robot dogs developed by Boston Dynamics and equipped with light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors — basically Q-UGV-based laser scanners — with a unique mission: to ”build 3-D ship models aboard the ‘mothballed’ fleet of decommissioned ships at the Philadelphia Navy Yard,” according to the Navy.
“What you’re seeing is a growing array of sensors and effectors as these robot dogs take on more and more roles,” Singer said. “The legs are agnostic to what they’re carrying, whether it’s a soldier’s backpack, a chemical weapons sensor, or a .50 caliber machine gun.”
It’s not totally apparent what prompted the sudden proliferation of robot dogs across the U.S. military in the span of just a few months last year, although Singer suggests that their widespread adoption is likely a result of the broader spread of unmanned systems in general (and Q-UGVs in particular) among world militaries.
But while robot dogs appear to be gaining ground across the U.S. armed forces, the Army and Marine Corps are noticeably absent from this ever-growing dogpile. The Army had two Boston Dynamics robot dogs in its arsenal until loaning one to Ukraine for minesweeping purposes, but as recently as this past October Army officials weren’t totally sold on the idea of widely fielding a quadrupedal platform despite efforts to do so as an (extremely noisy) robotic pack mule starting in 2004.
“These legged platforms have some promises which we’ve identified, primarily from a mobility standpoint,” Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center chief of dismounted robotic systems Milot Resyli told C4ISRNET last year. “There are limitations to them as well from an endurance [perspective], as well as the payload capability and power of how much they can support.”
Indeed, not everyone is as bullish on the rise of the robot dog as the Air Force appears to be. Sam Bendett, an unmanned systems expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, told Task & Purpose that, in his experience, U.S. service members “may not feel 100% comfortable” with operating Q-UGVs simply because the technology behind the systems, while capable of, say, a fancy photoshoot for DVIDS, may not be mature enough to support sustained use in the field just yet.
“If [a robot dog] can move on its own and orient itself where it doesn’t have to be led with a cord, where it can move by itself and carry extra weight, ammo, or whatever, that’s where it’s most helpful,” Bendett said. “But this all really depends on a lot of testing of these systems within a tactical ground unit. Troops have to trust that the machine is going to move in a way that’s predictable without getting in the way. Right now, it’s very difficult to see how robot dogs can accomplish that.”
“Once the algorithms that operate the robot dog allow it to move in a manner that adapts quickly to any given situation without getting in the way, then it’ll make sense,” he added. “Right now, though, it’s a very amusing toy.”
While their roles in U.S. military operations appear to be expanding, it’s unclear if semi-autonomous robot dogs will ever go beyond a surveillance role and lean into, say, fighting — that is, beyond its existence as another information node in a unit’s kill chain. Indeed, the major companies behind the Q-UGV technology (led by Boston Dynamics) authored an open letter this past October decrying the potential weaponization of such technologies by world governments.
But those warnings may be moot as global militaries pursue new methods of unmanned killing. In October 2021, Ghost Robotics and SWORD International unveiled a Special Purpose Unmanned Rifle robot dog outfitted with a 6.5mm Creedmoor rifle on the floor of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. in the first publicly available example of a weapons system attached to a Q-UGV. (That system, Parikh emphasized, had no autonomy and no AI and required a human operator to fire.)
And it’s not just American companies pursuing such capabilities. As recently as this past October (and just weeks after the robot dog-makers’ open letter on robot ethics dropped), a viral video from Chinese defense contractor Kestrel Defense showed an unmanned aerial vehicle airdropping a robot dog with a Chinese 5.8x42mm QBB-97 light machine gun strapped to its back onto a rooftop in a scene that feels ripped from an episode of Black Mirror.
For now, robot dogs appear consigned to tasks like foot patrols and persistent surveillance, although their roles and applications are becoming more sophisticated with each passing month. As Bendett explained, most global militaries are “discussing logistics first and combat second” when it comes to UGVs.
“The easiest way to use such a system isn’t in combat, where a situation is chaotic or unpredictable, but as a logistical tool to ease the burden for soldiers at the tactical level,” Bendett said. “When they’re used as logistical supplements, in that way they can be quite helpful.”
But even with the Defense Department approaching the future of semi-autonomous weapons with an eye toward AI ethics, it may only be a matter of time before America’s robot dogs move on from “sit and stay” to “search and destroy.”
“The armed role is coming,” Singer said. “It’s the same thing that happened with unmanned aerial systems … The Predator drone started out with just a camera and now it has Hellfire missiles.”
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