Beneath the guitars and arena-rock ready beat, the latest video from Russia’s Advanced Research Foundation is, at its robotic heart, about a platform slightly more capable than we’ve seen before. A new video of unmanned ground vehicles and drone swarms promises cutting-edge machines. If the technology isn’t there yet, it at least points to where Russia wants its war robots to go.
The Marker robot is a platform for exploring other robotics technologies, though official releases said it may also see use with Russian Special Forces. The Advanced Research Foundation, Russia’s equivalent of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), opened a National Center for the Development of Technology and Basic Elements of Robotics in 2015, and this vehicle is one way it’s figuring out how to make payloads work for future armed robots.
Marker is built to be modular, with open information architecture. One configuration for the testbed arms it with a Kalashnikov-produced machine gun and a part of anti-tank grenade launchers. We can safely expect to see it test a range of weapons, beyond this configuration. What stands out in the video, at least initially, is the way the turret on the robot tracks with the rifle carried by the infantryman.
In an official statement from ARF, the agency said the Marker is designed to work “a pair with a fighter, receiving target designation from the sight of his weapon,” or be controlled remotely. This is a novel twist on the another form of robotic targeting, where AI-powered sensors take aim and the human checks in before firing. It turns infantry into spotters for robots.
The Marker, and presumably the robots that will be based on it, can also be guided remotely, which makes the human spotter a bonus and not a limitation.
ARF clearly sees the Marker as a learning tool, saying “the evolution of combat robots is on the path of increasing the ability to perform tasks in autonomous mode with a gradual reduction in the role of the operator."
“This sentiment and development path is in line with recent Russian statement that the country’s military is developing AI-powered weapons with the ability to identify and engage targets,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses.
Marker isn’t even the star of its own video. There’s also a swarm of five quadcopters, joined by two more swarms of five quadcopters each, all supposedly working together as a single 15-member unit. ARF has already tested smaller drone groups and demonstrated small swarms before to students at the ERA technopolis.
The drone swarm might be assisting the Marker in targeting, or, at least, the video is edited in such a way to suggest that the flying swarm and the ground robot are linked. Russian forces have tested robots and fought against drones in Syria, and so the Marker-and-swarm combo might be another instance of battlefield inspiration leading to state-sponsored imitations.
“We should be objective when trying to discern robotics capabilities form PR videos like that one, no matter how realistic it may look,” said Bendett. “After all, Uran-9 UGV PR videos also looked very cool — and then that military robot ran into a number of serious issues while testing in Syria, issues that may not have been apparent in the YouTube promo. Still — many Russian statements from the unmanned systems developers pointed to Russia pursuing a swarm strategy for its UAVs and even UGVs — looks like they are finally delivering on that promise.”
Watch the video below:
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.