There are no atheists in foxholes, but there may be robots in them. The shallow depressions, static cover dug out of necessity, have more to offer mechanical occupants than human ones. In a video published May 28, Estonia’s Milrem Robotics demonstrates its armed THeMIS platform operating out of a foxhole, maneuvering over trenches, and firing at targets under the guidance of human operators hidden out of sight. It is an incremental development with implications that extend far beyond the small complex of earthworks in which it took place.
THeMIS looks like something halfway between a videogame prop and a hobbyist’s toy. THeMIS is a tracked platform, just shy of 8 feet long, 6.5 feet wide, and 3.5 feet tall, that can carry an array of payloads. For the April 2019 demonstration in Tapa, Estonia, the THeMIS platform carried an ADDER DM Remote Weapon Station armed with a 40mm Automatic Grenade Launcher and a 12.7mm Heavy Machine Gun.
The platform is remotely controlled, with humans capable of operating it at a range of 8,200 feet in open terrain or 3,300 in more built-up areas. The controller is a tablet that shows operators a view through the THeMIS’ camera, adding information in a kind of heads-up display that scans familiar to anyone who’s ever played a first-person shooter style game. The electro-optical cameras and processing built into the weapon station can track a target or even multiple targets. The human operator can touch the tablet to direct the robot to fire where directed.
“The operator can command the system from an ergonomically-designed mobile or stationary crew station that is matched with a Graphical User Interface for intuitive workflow and task execution,” Milrem said in a release. “The system significantly decreased the cognitive workload on the operator, reducing operator fatigue and improving combat performance.”
In some sense, “beyond line of sight” operations for uncrewed armed robots is old news. After all, the remotely piloted and operated drones, like the retired Predator and still-flying Reaper, are entirely about humans directing machines they cannot see to hit targets based entirely on sensors carried by the vehicles. Yet the THeMIS is notable because of how it extends that capability to the ground, and potentially to situations that don’t require uncontested airspace to operate. It is also functioning on a much smaller scale, with just a human or two needed to operate the machine, and with those humans in relatively close proximity.
What is most worth watching is the degree to which on-board targeting tools in remote weapon stations mounted on platforms like THeMIS find and track targets on their own, and how they prompt human controllers to respond to those alerts. A robot in a foxhole that allows a human to take the time, evaluate the threat, and then shoot second if need be is a different proposition than a robot automatically designed to shoot first.
Watch the THeMIS maneuver over foxholes and trenches below: