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A pebble that’s thrown and distracts guards is cinematic cliche, a convenient plot point turned trope and self parody. How could so much of human conflict come down to unaided ears, abundant pebbles, and perfectly choreographed movements? A thrown stick that starts walking off on its own, however, would have enough novelty to move through all the stages of disbelief and right into that perfect spot of “maybe this needs to be investigated.”

Hypotheticals aside, what is the military utility of a 3D printed set of parts, molded to fit a handful of sticks, and then tossed into combat? Or is such a notion pure fantasia?

The answer, as best I’ve been able to figure out, is more than zero. Robots, machines animated to human purpose and built to human end, are limited only in the shapes humans can imagine and fashion for them. The ready availability of weird robots promises to explore battlefields in ways previously unanticipated.

I’m Kelsey D. Atherton, reporting from Socorro, New Mexico, and this is the fourth installment of Tomorrow Wars.

The aforementioned stick robot is a biomimetic novelty produced by researchers at the University of Tokyo’s Information Somatics Laboratory, and is in no way designed for military use. But the process by which it was designed, from scanning raw material to coding movement around a found-object skeleton to fielding it in real life, could lead to machines that use new forms and fill new roles.

Robots in fiction have to at least appear plausible, which is part of what makes novel robot forms in real life so unsettling. Freed from narrative constraints, military robotics planners and designers can find forms that match the tasks assigned, and create machines as bewildering as they are useful. Any vision of robot-filled battlefields that sticks to the tired forms of the mechanized armies of the early 20th century is already an obsolete vision.

This week, we’re sticking with robots, even when the robots are sticks. Let’s get weird with it.

° 1. STARSHIP CRAWLERS

NASA’s LEMUR, or Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot, is first and foremost a tool of science. It can climb uneven surfaces with multiple limbs ending in multi-fingered hands filled with fish-hooks for gripping power, and NASA used this to explore hitherto unstudied fossilized algae. Neat, certainly, and paleontologically valuable. What we’re interested in today is what LEMUR might mean for a sensor platform configured with the sensors pointing outwards. Robots built to scale irregular vertical surfaces could open new paths for armed humans to follow. Robots that latch onto walls and then stay there could provide useful surveillance at an angle human passerby are unlikely to notice. And crawling robots in general can go places people can’t, which is overall an underutilized path for terrestrial (and extraterrestrial) robots. One the Jet Propulsion Laboratory might already be exploring with the military.

° 2. DON’T BLINK

For all the weirdly realized predictions of modern life derived from pulpy cyberpunk novels, body modifications for the express purpose of gaining unnatural abilities is a promise that seems under-explored. Biomimetic contact lenses, controlled by a human shifting the electrical fields of their eyes, is one step closer to realizing that world. The implications of such a shift are straightforward; robots that do what existing contacts do - but do so easier - opens up a low encumbrance path to normal or better vision for many people. The configurability of the lenses, the ways that specially designed lenses could turn, with the right sequence of blinks, into at-will binoculars opens up a vast range of sensing potentially on the battlefield.

Is hawk-like sight worth putting a thin robotic membrane on a user’s eye? We’ll have to wade a little more into the future to see. This isn’t really a 2020 vision.

° 3. THIS IS MY ROBOT, THIS IS MY DRONE

New battlefield tools mean new battlefield doctrine, and the robot powers of the world are scrambling to adapt. Russia, which previously deployed combat ground vehicles like the useful-if-mundane Uran-6 minesweeper and the flashy-if-underwhelming Uran-9 combat vehicle, has announced that it is conducting more domestic tests with the Marker UGV, specifically designed as a learning tool. A robot built to test doctrine is a fascinating machine, because it has to sit somewhere between a malleable blank slate and a useful test case. We are at the early stages of learning what Russia’s combined robot/human maneuvering looks like, but expect this to be a growth area.

In the United States, DARPA and the Marines are testing a series of robots and robot-command tools with enough acronyms to fill a particularly niche trivia night in Pentagon City. These include BEAM, or the BITS Electronic Attack Module; ASSAULT, or the Augmented Spectral Situational Awareness and Unaided Localization for Transformative Squads, and ATAKs, or Android Tactical Assault Kits.

Backronym trivia aside, the exercise is useful because it is looking at human/robot combined arms doctrine on the smallest meaningful scale, that of squad maneuver. Should planners read into the fact that Marines train with uncrewed scouts on the periphery while Russian soldiers seem to be exploring doctrine around a tracked and turreted robot taking point? It doesn’t hurt to think on it at least a little bit. The future of robot war remains unwritten, but the advantage will go to whomever does their homework.

° 4. BACKRONYM-A-PALOOZA

Here at the Tomorrow Wars studio, we love acronyms warped backwards to sound like special features on a G.I. Joe playset. Besides BEAM, ASSAULT, and ATAKs above, last week gave us the MICROCHIPS Act, for Manufacturing, Investment, and Controls Review for Computer Hardware, Intellectual Property and Supply, and System Security Integration Through Hardware and Firmware, or SSITH, a DARPA tool designed to improve election hardware and firmware security. Have a favorite backronym? Maybe a hidden GEM (Generated Educational Marker)? Email me at katherton@c4isrnet.com and I might include it in a future issue.

That’s all for this fortnight. Questions, comments, or inquires about whether or not seeding space with robots will eventually come back to haunt us, a la Battlestar Galactica, email me at katherton@c4isrnet.com.

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