Winter is the bane of armies. From antiquity, when forces would disband for harvest and wait until spring to reform, to modern fighting in Afghanistan, where every year commanders herald the seasonal decline of attacks as some new progress, rather than a weather-determined ebb-and-flow, when given the option even human societies that fight a lot prefer not to do so in the frozen months. Which is part of what makes the biathlon in the Winter Olympics so exciting: a competition where humans practice the skills needed for a winter war, a formalized ranked scored and timed shoot-and-scoot.

Humans have, of course, fought wars during the winter months (the Winter War between Finland and the USSR being perhaps the most iconic of its kind, but all sorts of modern wars feature the logistics to supply static fronts or deployed forces even through the cold months). Which means that, as militaries develop and integrate armed robots into their future planning, they might want to take a look at ski-bots.

Let me back up a second. To showcase robotics and link it to human feats of athleticism, South Korea held a competition, featuring only robots. From The Verge:

In a tournament aptly called “Edge of Robot: Ski Robot Challenge,” eight robotics teams from research universities, institutes, and a private company competed for a $10,000 prize to see which robot could ski down the slopes and race to the finish line the fastest while avoiding obstacles.

The tournament took place at an 80-meter alpine skiing course at Welli Hilli Ski Resort, an hour away from the games in Pyeongchang. With record-low temperatures affecting robot functionality, many of the robots tumbled down through much of the course. Normally, this would have been devastating to watch with real athletes who have trained years for their big moments, but with robots donning child-sized outfits and skis, it was hilarious and endearing.

The short downhill run, around flags and to a waiting audience of humans, is engineering challenge and spectacle, a fun novelty that is as much robotics promotion as robotics research. The robots are also constrained by a no-doubt eye-catching stipulation that they assume a human shape. (Had the robots been free to adopt other forms, we might have seen a nondescript sleighbot tackle those hills instead.)

But so long as travel over snow is part of the human experience, and for our purposes so long as humans traveling over snow may end up fighting in that same snow, we should look at ski robot design, like that of tracked robots and flying robots and underwater robots, as another way to master or augment terrain humans have already conquered. Earlier this decade, the University of Manitoba Autonomous Agents Laboratory created a skiing robot named Jennifer, and in 2009 researchers at Kanazawa University in Japan built a robot to test the impact of skiing on specific joints.

The field of ski robots is small and growing, though it lags far behind the field of remotely controlled stabilized targeting systems. Should the day come for a robotic biathlon, I have no idea how the robots will fare on skis, but I can almost certainly guarantee that when it comes to targets, the robots will hit their marks.

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