On screen, the small robot slides perfectly underneath the textureless tank. It is a modern iteration of an old promise in remote warfare, rendered with all the processing power of a desktop PC from 1994. Can a small, cheap robot prove useful against the vehicles of an enemy at war?
A recent exhibition of unmanned ground vehicles by Iran suggests that the possibility, if not the reality, is already in development.
Designed by the Research and Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization of the Iranian Army, the Heidair-1 is almost certainly bound for life as an expendable battlefield platform.
“There are many countries and forces using small [unmanned ground vehicles] for ISR and other roles — many belligerents in the Middle East have them, including several DIY models made by non-state actors,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses.
The Islamic Republic of Iran Army Ground Forces, or NEZAJA, shared pictures of the new machine on Twitter Oct. 3. The default body of the robot is a six-wheeled tan box, with a pair of antenna sticking out toward the rear of the machine. Of the six Heidair-1 platforms featured, two were models with assault rifles mounted on top of the little rovers, magazines pointed skyward.
“NEZAJA had an expo in Tehran where it unveiled several concepts, including this small UGV, Heidar-1. It appears to be a proof of concept, and there is no evidence of this UGV taking part in combat,” Bendett said.
In the same video, NEZAJA shows one of the robots driving toward a rough tank-like shape. It explodes, fulfilling the promise of the simulation, and hearkening back to an earlier era of anti-tank warfare. In World War II, Germany fielded thousands of Goliath remote-control anti-tank mines, designed to crawl under parked tanks and detonate through the softer armor below.
“This is the first time we have seen Iran unveil such a vehicle,” said Bendett, a fellow in Russia studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. “Equally interesting is their claim that this will be a ‘networked’ system of vehicles that can presumably function in more or less autonomous mode. At this point, however, they are remote-controlled devices.”
In a video demonstration, the rovers are either single-use mines or armed with machine guns. They are shown being used as combined arms with flying multirotor scouts. Whatever the guts of the new rolling rovers, the ability to guide them remotely to targets spotted by drone adds to the range of threats small robots can pose to armored vehicles.
“This Heidair-1UGV may act ... as a kamikaze vehicle that may sneak up on its target much faster given its overall small size,” Bendett said. “We may not see this UGV operate in Iranian Army, but we may see such a vehicle operated by Houthis in their campaign against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its aligned forces.”
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.