8 January 2021
Recent trends in warfare show that combat environments are increasingly moving to densely inhabited urban areas, as military forces are called upon to counter non-state actors (Del Monte, 2019). This has initiated a fierce academic debate on the neutrality of urban environments (Spencer, 2020).
Three main actions are deemed necessary to prepare for the challenges presented by modern urban warfare, notably: highly trained military personnel (able to achieve situational awareness in contested scenarios), a clear and efficient chain of command, and the incorporation of cutting-edge technologies to facilitate the identification of threats (Betz, Stanford-Tuck, 2019).
In this context, the Israeli company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems has successfully demonstrated two unmanned systems: a four-legged robotic dog, and a miniature drone. These are designed to enter and map buildings. In recent demonstrations, they jointly managed to scan and identify threats in an indoor environment through a shared interface. Such technology, aside from preventing soldiers from engaging in high-risk urban operations, may eventually execute complex missions with minimal participation from human handlers.
The demonstration of these systems sought to highlight the efficiency and effectiveness of operating in a multidimensional battlefield with AI-powered and interoperable hardware capabilities. To ensure the detection of weaponry, and the mapping of the compound, optical scanning, automatic target recognition, and digital battlefield technology were utilised. Each system deployed for the operation was connected to the same platform using artificial intelligence. The robotic dog sent real-time information gathered from the exploration of the building to a computer screen. At the same time, the small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) scanned the compound from outside to inside (accessing the building’s narrow spots) to provide a cross-reference of the structure’s external layout (Frantzman, 2021). The data collected by the two systems were merged through a point cloud to build an accurate map of the location. The outcome of these operations will be the construction of 3D maps of indoor battlefields that will be useful to soldiers preparing for combat in these environments.
Future developments include the configuration of a comprehensive AI “brain” capable of combining more diverse unmanned systems into a common interface which would take advantage of Rafael’s unique algorithm. This will enable constant sharing of real-time data between various units and vehicles which will become the norm in a highly interconnected battlefield, according to Rafael’s CEO Yoav Har-Even (Ari Gross, 2020). Based on strong consumer interest in the new technology, the company aims to sign relevant contracts this year, enabling it to break into the market with a prototype. The capabilities are intended to be available from several devices, including those of individual infantry soldiers. Indeed, an additional strength of this platform is the simplicity of use, it is designed to be operated by single soldiers, and is operated by intuitive point-and-click controls on a military standard touch pad (Frantzman, 2021).
On the downside, the implementation of this system may be affected by alleged vulnerabilities. There is the limited payload that a small UAV can carry, and its highly perceptible noise. The latter may become a positive attribute, as it may cause concern to hostile forces, but presently it is an avenue for critique. Moreover, in an urban environment, unmanned systems may be fired upon and physically hit by enemies. Rafael claims to possess appropriate technology to address this issue, but has not disclosed it yet. Predictably, some backlash will occur as the technology is still at an early phase. However, it is worth emphasising that progress in this field has been significant.
The project is ideal for supporting the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in pursuance of their multi-year Momentum Plan. This aims to unfold a mapping and communication system to rapidly share intelligence with units on the battlefield in a hypothetical multi-front engagement (Ari Gross, 2020). This technology may benefit the EU Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions since it can be deployed to collect data regarding potential indoor threats for military personnel. It could conceivably be combined with the Integrated Unmanned Ground System (UGS) being developed under PESCO, thereby contributing to the robotics industry’s interoperability.
Written by Paolo D’ALESIO, Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre
Ari Gross, J. (2020) Rafael seeks to outfit IDF with drones, robots that spot threats by themselves. The Times of Israel. Available at https://www.timesofisrael.com/rafael-seeks-to-outfit-idf-with-drones-robots-that-spot-threats-by-themselves/
Betz D., Stanford-Tuck H. (2019) The City Is Neutral: On Urban Warfare in the 21st Century. Texas National Security Review, Vol. 2 Iss. 4.
Del Monte, F. (2019) Concrete Jungle: The Future of Urban Warfare. Finabel InfoFlash. Available at https://finabel.org/concrete-jungle-the-future-of-urban-warfare/
Frantzman, S. (2021) Rafael combines technologies to give combat robots a ‘brain’ to map threats indoors. C4isrnet. Available at https://www.c4isrnet.com/home/2021/01/06/rafael-combines-technologies-to-give-combat-robots-a-brain-to-map-threats-indoors/
Pesco (2018) Integrated Unmanned Ground System (UGS). Pesco Projects. Available at https://pesco.europa.eu/project/integrated-unmanned-ground-system-ugs/
Spencer, J. (2020) The City Is Not Neutral: Why Urban Warfare Is So Hard. Modern War Institute.