US Army to upgrade autonomous droids with advanced AI

The US Army is examining various ways of upgrading the artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities of its tactical robot fleet.

Currently, the 3,000 small droids are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan where they routinely clear buildings and sweep areas for dangerous improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

However, recent technological advances could eventually allow the robots to autonomously detect hazardous material, search for bombs and even map entire sectors. 

“We are [clearly] moving along that spectrum from tele-operating to semi-autonomy where you can send a robot from point A to point B without any intervention,” Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Thompson told the US Army website.

“[Of course], if it has a problem, [the robot] will pop up and indicate it has found an obstacle.”

According to Thompson, both the Army and Marines are working with a number of partners to upgrade the AI capabilities of existing robots, including iRobot’s PackBot and Qinetic’s TALON.

The advanced software-based algorithms are expected to allow the bots to perform additional functions and navigate unexplored terrain without requiring a human controller or tele-operator.

“We are [definitely] looking at ways to make the systems better. We’re looking for modularity and interoperability. It will take the burden off the user,” said Thompson.

“I want a robot to go from point A to point B by itself and tell me when it gets there. We’re going to get better interface with the cameras and the grippers – and a lot more understanding of where the robot sits in space.”

It should be noted that the defense industry has already chalked up significant success in improving military-oriented AI abilities and skills. 

For example, an upgraded Ordnance Disposal bot manufactured by QinetiQ recently navigated and mapped a room without human intervention.

“We demonstrated a completely autonomous TALON robot with chemical, biological and radiological detection abilities. A map was created about 1,000 meters away from the building showing what was inside a building and where the hazards were – the robot was able to do that without any tele-operation,” explained QinetiQ VP Robert Quinn.

“[Now], in Afghanistan, 80 percent of the IEDs are homemade explosives. So, having the ability in 30 minutes or less to do a complete investigation of buildings and check for homemade explosives – without soldiers ever entering the building – is awfully important.”