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Get that robot dog off my lawn

Quadrupeds and the future of weaponizing autonomous robots.

Everyone loves a dancing robot. But put a gun in that bad boy’s hands and suddenly everyone has different feelings about it. Recently, five companies including Boston Dynamics, you know, the guys that make the yellow robot dog Spot, pledged to not support the weaponization of their products. In their letter to the public they stated, “We believe that adding weapons to robots that are remotely or autonomously operated, widely available to the public, and capable of navigating to previously inaccessible locations where people live and work, raises new risks of harm and serious ethical issues.”

Let me be the first to say, “Don’t flatter yourself, Sweetheart.”

I know what you’re saying, “Jimbo, I watched Dark Mirror, those things have USB sticks in their legs and can find your social media posts and my deep-rooted obsession with Nathan Fielder.”  There’s a lot to unpack in that statement. So let’s slow down a bit and I’ll give you some context.

In my last post, I discussed the history of 3DR and DJI and how Chinese investment in drones led to them cornering the commercial market. I also discussed how this is directly impacting war efforts in Ukraine. I mentioned that this article would be a follow-on to that discussion. I said that because the current efforts in the ground robotics market is on a similar trajectory to the small drone market.

Despite their public declaration to not weaponize their robots, Boston Dynamics (or BD as the cool kids call them) built their initial robots with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under a project called Big Dog. The Big Dog project intended to use legged robots as autonomous mules for the Army. After those initial efforts, Boston Dynamics has gone on to make a number of stellar dancing robot videos but not a whole lot for the military. They’ve also been bought and sold by several major companies to include Alphabet Inc. and then SoftBank. They are currently owned by Hyundai.

From their inception, legged robots captured the imagination but could never quite capture a market. There is definitely a place for them, however. Subterranean exploration, search and rescue, security patrols. As long as the robots can navigate the terrain and carry the right sensor they have a mission. The biggest issues are the legs themselves and their ability to maintain what is called the “stability polygon” to keep from falling over. This is the biggest difficult with legged robots as opposed to tracked vehicles.

If you ask anyone who deals with terrestrial robots, they will give you a litany of reasons why tracked robots are a better option in most terrains: they have a longer battery life. They’re more reliable. They can carry larger payloads for work like explosive ordnance disposal. Maintenance is easier. But, for some reason, a robot dog is just cool. I mean, look at this guy:

Anyone seen Steve?

The other aspect of legged robotics has nothing to do with a robot having legs. It has to do with perception. There is a psychological impact on the battlefield when you see a legged robot carrying a gun. It’s alarming. That is, until you see the robot try and walk over a bush. Then it falls on its face. Which, if you’ve ever seen a BD Spot walking in tall grass you know what I mean. Those things are smooth as silk on asphalt and then they mess the proverbial bed once a twig blocks their SLAM sensors. I’ve seen it first-hand and it isn’t pretty—lots of flailing. Kinda like a bad break-dancing impression. Except the dancer has no head… or a soul. Nor will it ever. (This is your cue to go off on robot uprisings and terminator and how the Spot will eventually declare its pronouns.)   

Whether companies refuse to weaponize their robots or not, it’s going to happen.

Case in point. A video has been floating around of a robot with an automatic rifle strapped to its back. If you forgot, it’s right here. If you look closely, the robot dog in that video is not a BD Spot. It’s not even their biggest competitor in the US, Ghost Robotics (who did NOT sign the pledge). The company in the video is Unitree (who DID sign the pledge). Unitree is a Chinese company. Shocker. There are also promotional videos of the Chinese military deploying ground robots from drones. Those look an awful lot like Unitree.

No one will recognize me if I’m dressed like a ninja

Why does this matter? Remember DJI? The drone company that owns the bulk of the drone market and funded by the Chinese government? Well, Unitree, being a Chinese company, is most likely funded by the government as well. And, despite signing a pledge, it sure does appear like the government intends to use them on the battlefield.

From a price perspective, and from a performance perspective, there is a big difference between the American companies like BD and Ghost, and their Chinese competitor Unitree. The Chinese company’s current small robot now sells for around $2700. BD? $100K for a lease. And you must sign an agreement you won’t put shady stuff like paint ball guns on it.

At the end of the day, a robot with legs, tracks, wheels, or propellers, is just a truck. It carries things. What you strap on the back of that lil’ homie is up to you. (That’s the approach Ghost Robotics has taken and one I agree with.) There is nothing a pledge can do to stop it. At the end of the day, it’s the policy of the organization that purchases those robots that makes the difference. Autonomous robotics will continue to flourish. Decision-makers need to be able to adapt accordingly. This applies to everything from the F-35 to a DJI Mavik. You can’t stop innovation on the battlefield. What you can do, is educate the public on how you intend to use them and the ethics behind those decisions. At the same time, you have to prepare for an adversary that could not care less.

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J.L. Hancock
J.L. Hancock

Drawing from a graduate level education in national security studies, foreign language expertise, and experience as a technician embedded with special operations forces, J.L. Hancock writes fiction that reflects the complexities of the modern world. His eye for detail and authentic narrative is rooted in the many lives he has lived, the worlds he has seen, and the people who inspire him.