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Robot Reconnaissance In The Army: Rheinmetall’s New Armed Reconnaissance Robot?

14 December 2020

Reconnaissance can be described as ‘the act of real-time observation of a certain place, person, group or ongoing activity to gather information’. In defence matters, robots are mainly used for reconnaissance operations to avoid putting soldiers in dangerous situations. As robot development is evolving at increasingly high speed, the market for this specific segment of the defence industry has been heating up. Development has reached a new high at the end of 2020, marked by the new update of Rheinmetall’s new Armed reconnaissance vehicle for high-security scouting missions.

This new Rheinmetall robot is part of the growing range of ground robots and unmanned ground robots used by armed land forces all over the world. As already stressed, the aim of using these new forms of unmanned robots is reducing the risk for soldiers with their boots on the ground. Before the advent of these new technologies, soldiers themselves – with the necessary material – carried out such reconnaissance missions. With the advance of technology in the past years, it is possible to remotely monitor areas of importance using robots instead of humans. The main difference with previous approaches is the fact that these unmanned vehicles can be controlled from hundreds, thousands of meters away.

Consequently, the risk of harm for soldiers can be reduced to almost none. However, robot technology is still in its infancy and robotics is a hotly debated and studied field within land force matters and more broadly defence matters. Reconnaissance missions seem to be the perfect field to introduce the new advancements of robotics for two main reasons: 1) robot technology is at this point already developed well enough to carry out reconnaissance mission tasks and 2) the urging need to avoid unnecessary harm to land forces during such reconnaissance missions.

A reconnaissance robot can be described as an automated machine controlled by an operator intended to gather information by detecting certain obstacles through sensor, cameras and images which can be analysed by the operator. The new Rheinmetall vehicle is designed to collect tactical intelligence while providing frontline fire support if necessary. Since it will operate in high-risk situations, it is equipped with high-end technology, giving commanders greater situational awareness: long-range EO/IR sensors, a surveillance radar, a 360° full ring camera, a laser rangefinder and a laser designator to identify potential threats, a 3.5-metre expandable mast with a tilting mechanism and a radio-agnostic architecture, permitting clear exchanges with HQ and other A-UGVs.

The vehicle can operate autonomously because it is equipped with the Rheinmetall PATH autonomous kit (A-kit). This allows the vehicle to operate in unmanned-mode. As the Rheinmetall Field ranger is also equipped with a Light 7.62 mm RCWS gun, legal and ethical questions related to its use may arise. Despite this progressive growth of new autonomous weapons, the lack of a legal framework that regulates them remains one of the main unsolved issues. International law, as well as NATO doctrine, does not currently address the potential legal and ethical disputes that may arise from the use or development of highly automated weapon systems. As a result, supplementary law such as international human rights law, international humanitarian law or traditional law will have to be applied. Rheinmetall, however, stated that machines will never be in charge of autonomously decide when to open fire. The engagement of targets is remote-controlled (enhancing the safety of soldiers) but never autonomous, which could potentially fill the responsibility gap for autonomous weapons.

The creation of this new model fits into the grand scheme of creating a vehicle which by acting in groups further enhances its efficiency, the so-called ‘Wolfpack project’. All units (reconnaissance, surveillance, target positioning) work together and communicate to maintain maximum situational awareness. This unmanned reconnaissance vehicle is a counterpoint to Milrem Robotics’ one, proving that the market of unmanned vehicles for defence purposes is booming. This growth is undeniably a good development since it enables land forces to limit dangers for their soldiers. 

Written by Milan STORMS, Legal Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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