With a less-lethal weapon, there is always the risk that it might be bested by more-lethal means. Escalation and immediate response needs can lead to a shoot-first mentality, with less harmful tools kept as an alternative. But if those less-lethal tools are put on a robot, the danger suddenly shifts. Why not send a drone with a stun gun after a person with unknown armament? Worst comes to worst, it’s just another disable robot.
This is, perhaps, one of the reasons Russia’s Scientific and Production Association of Special Materials Corporation is looking to display a drone armed with both a stun gun and an incapacitating laser weapon at the Army 2019 expo in June. Detailed by Interfax, the lightweight vehicle will carry a laser meant to only induce temporary blindness, rather than deliberately cause any permanent damage. (This is the proverbial bright line for all laser and directed-energy weapons, which are permissible to cause permanent damage to sensors, weapons and uncrewed vehicles, but which are bound by the 1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons to not cause permanent harm to human eyesight.)
“This drone is definitely intended for internal security where killing the perpetrator is not recommended or is not the final outcome,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses. “We do know that Russian National Guard, for example, is interested in a range of technologies for crowd control and internal security — this newly established security agency has also been shopping for drones lately.”
While the Special Materials Corporation doesn’t appear to have any existing drones in its inventory, it does have a range of stun guns and other tools marked to internal security forces. One such laser is designed as an incapacitating tool, with a minimum safe distance of 13 feet. Whether or not a drone built to fly lasers and stun guns toward people will keep that minimum safe distance depends a lot on the code that goes into programming it and the skill of the human piloting it.
“This particular design may have been influenced by Russian experience in Syria — as are many of today’s [Ministry of Defence Tactics, Techniques and Procedures] and [concept of operations],” said Bendett, a fellow in Russian studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. “Judging by the “urban” purpose of this UAV, Russian military and security agency have a need for a technology that incapacitates the adversary either for capturing or for simply flushing him out of hiding (not necessarily to be killed).”
While the burning and melting of directed-energy weapons are the most eye-catching function, we’ve already seen laser dazzlers used to disable or damage sensors on aircraft. That sensor-disabling will only become a bigger part of military missions as more and more uncrewed vehicles enter the battlefield. Russia is already exploring drones using non-lethal means against other drones. And while North Dakota police decided against outfitting drones with stun guns in 2015, equipping robots remains a stated goal of stun gun makers in the United States.
“This drone can be a disruptor without the need to employ larger technology like crowd-control trucks and maybe even without the need to utilize soldiers or police to disperse people — that is why this UAV can also be equipped with a loudspeaker, a siren and a thermal imager,” said Bendett.
Tools and techniques developed for internal security can find their way to the battlefields of irregular warfare, and vice versa. Less-lethal means attached to nonliving machines can shape fights in unique ways, and ones that should be expected in the future.
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.