No nation in the 21st century has a monopoly on robots. As contractors across the world flocked to the 2019 Association of the U.S. Army meeting in Washington this month to try to interest Army buyers in their latest robotic wares, across the globe Russian researchers announced further iterations of their Marker unmanned ground vehicle test platform.
The latest development for Marker is autonomous movement through urban terrain.
“Urban combat is becoming key to Russians' developing new weapons technologies, based largely on their military experience in Syria,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses. “There, Russian military and its allies are fighting in an increasingly urban and semi-urban environment, so any technology that saves soldiers' lives and makes their mission more effective will get Ministry of Defence's attention.”
Marker is developed by the Advanced Research Foundation, Russia’s DARPA analog, which was also responsible for the FEDOR android Russia deployed to the International Space Station.
Previously, Russia demonstrated the Marker in snowy fields, showcasing how the robot’s turret could follow the targeting sight of a human directing it. The Marker was a large part of Russia’s June 2019 exposition of military technology. While not itself a marketed product, showcasing a technology demonstrator is one way to indicate the future direction of military procurement.
It helps, too, that Marker gives Russia’s military a way to learn from some fielded failures.
“Marker is probably benefiting from the lessons learned with Russians’ testing large Uran-9 combat UGV, when this vehicle did not function as planned due to numerous issues that propped up in a"semi-urban" environment back in 2018,” said Bendett. “One of the most important problems was the inability for the operator to guide the vehicle from afar, resulting in close — several hundred meters — proximity to Uran-9 as it attempted to “fight.”
A robot that requires humans in close proximity to operate is hardly a lifesaving device. Hence the significance of the autonomous mode in Marker’s recent tests, which can keep the robot in the loop but at some distance from the operator directing its movement.
With greater autonomy comes greater ease of shifting from “human-in-the-loop” controls to “human-on-the-loop” commands. The distinction carries with it significant moral and legal implications, with “in-the-loop” specifying that a human actively choose to fire a weapon, and “on-the-loop” allowing a human to stop a robot automatically taking an action, but not requiring prior approval. “On-the-loop” controls are part of a future military planners are designing toward, consciously or not.
“Humans are definitely in the loop with Marker, but this recent test also demonstrated this UGV’s greater autonomy and the ability to shift humans to “on-the-loop” status,” said Bendett, a fellow in Russia studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.
At a size somewhere between that of a large bomb squad robot and a small car, Marker matched the size of many ground robots displayed at the annual AUSA meeting, but is smaller than the new crop of uncrewed light combat vehicles that approach tanks in appearance, if not quite in dimensions.
As the United States prepares for more robot tanks in more sizes, it remains to be seen if Russia’s Marker test platform can scale up.
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.