Given my busy schedule of late, some stories have been sitting in my stack for some time and I haven’t been able to write about them. But one’s like this are too cool to pass up, so here’s a belated acknowledgement. It seems that Virgin Galactic, having now demonstrated its ability to conduct aerospace tourism, has decided to enter into phase two of its plans for the future: aerospace travel!
In the scenario they are proposing, their planes would fly customers from Los Angeles to Tokyo, and the transit would take one hour. The takeoff system would be similar to the midair launch the company uses now with the SpaceShipTwo. Basically, a large plane flies the spacecraft off the ground, drops it in midair, a hybrid rocket engine ignites, and the spacecraft ascends into lower orbit.
A system like this would allow patrons to fly from the West Coast to Japan in an hour, or from the United Kingdom to Australia in two hours. This is according to statements made by Virgin Galactic’s CEO, George Whitesides, back in September at a company event at New York City’s Museum of Natural History:
You can imagine a SpaceShipThree or a SpaceShipFour going outside the atmosphere, then coming back down outside an urban area and landing. We don’t have to accept the status quo. We can imagine a vehicle using liquid oxygen or liquid hydrogen to get us across the Pacific in an hour. You could do that.
For those following Branson’s exploits, this announcement should come as no surprise. For years, he has been attempting to create a supersonic airline of his own. But when a paradigm-shifting idea like “point-to-point suborbital space transportation” becomes possible, he began to sets his sights a little higher (so to speak).
Naturally, there are a few things that need to be worked out and tested before that’s possible, but it’s entirely within the realm of possibility. In fact, the European Space Agency has been researching the idea and claimed that SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo are the most promising space launch mechanisms they’ve seen to date.
Naturally, there is the nagging question of cost. If aerospace travel does become feasible, who exactly will be able to afford it? So far, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceflight have attracted hundreds of customers, but at a cost of $250,000 per head. It seems unlikely that these same people would pay a quarter of a million dollars just to travel halfway around the world. And some experts maintain that the industry will fail strictly because of the costs involved.
Derek Webber, is one such person. As the executive director of Spaceport Associates, he wrote a paper in 2008 that explored the idea:
Credible market studies have not been done, or at least published. The optimum technical design has not been established. The ground infrastructure is not in place… Price levels are uncertain. It is not even clear whether such flights are best characterized as tourism or as transportation; whether the passengers would be primarily tourists or business persons on urgent trips.
Nevertheless, these doubts are doing nothing to stem the flow of investment and research being made by aerospace organizations and companies. For years, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines – the national air carrier of the Netherlands – has been developing a rocket-powered sub-orbital craft of its own. California-based XCOR Aerospace also has the Lynx – a hypersonic plane that could fly between New York and Tokyo in just 90 minutes.
Reaction Engines Limited is also developing the Skylon hypersonic engine for commercial spacecraft, much in the same way that Boeing and NASA are developing the X-37B space plane. While these efforts are aimed at creating reusable spacecraft that could deploy satellites and deliver crew and supplies into orbit, they are also laying the groundwork for commercial transportation that takes people into orbit.
Meanwhile, DARPA and the US Marine Corps have been working on developing their own point-to-point rockets for delivering supplies and people for roughly a decade now and the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2010 report noted that:
[the] potential for the rapid global transport of passengers and the fast distribution of goods and services make point-to-point transportation an attractive space technology concept worth exploiting.
So while a price breakdown may be lacking, and the expected costs limiting, the technology is still in its infancy and it seems likely that the future of transportation lies in space. Beyond rapid transit and space tourism, it may very well be how airlines ferry people to and from their destinations in the not-too-distant future.
Robotic exoskeletons have come a long way, and are even breaking the mold. When one utters the term, it tends to conjure up images of a heavy suit with a metal frame that bestows the wearer super-human strength – as exemplified by Daewoo’s robot worker suits. And whereas those are certainly making an impact, there is a burgeoning market for flexible exoskeletons that would assist with everyday living.
Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed just such a device, a flexible fabric exoskeleton that earned them a $2.9 million grant by DARPA to continue developing the technology. Unlike the traditional exoskeleton concept, Harvard’s so-called “Soft Exosuit” is not designed to give the wearer vastly increase lifting capacity.
Instead, the Soft Exosuit works with the musculature to reduce injuries, improve stamina, and enhance balance even for those with weakened muscles. In some ways, this approach to wearable robotics is the opposite of past exoskeletons. Rather than the human working within the abilities and constraints of the exoskeleton, the exoskeleton works with the natural movements of the human wearer.
The big challenge of this concept is designing a wearable machine that doesn’t get in the way. In order to address this, the Wyss Institute researchers went beyond the usual network of fabric straps that hold the suit in place around the user’s limbs. In addition, they carefully studied the way people walk and determined which muscles would benefit from the added forces offered by the Exosuit.
With a better understanding of the biomechanics involved, the team decided to go with a network of cables to transmit forces to the joints. Batteries and motors are mounted at the waist to avoid having any rigid components interfering with natural joint movement. This allows the wearer the freedom to move without having to manually control how the forces are applied.
Basically, the wearer does not have to push on a joystick, pull against restraints, or stick to a certain pace when walking with the Exosuit. The machine is supposed to work with the wearer, not the other way around. The designers integrated a network of strain sensors throughout the straps that transmit data back to the on-board microcomputer to interpret and apply supportive force with the cables.
DARPA is funding this project as part of the Warrior Web program, which seeks to reduce musculoskeletal injuries for military personnel. However, Harvard expects this technology to be useful in civilian applications as well. Anyone who needs to walk for long periods of time at work could benefit from the Soft Exosuit, which is less expensive and more comfortable that conventional exosuits; and with a little rescaling, could even be worn under clothing.
But the greatest impact of the Soft Exosuit is likely to be for those who suffer from a physical impairment and/or injuries. Someone that has trouble standing or walking could possibly attain normal mobility with the aid of this wearable robot. And people working their way through physiotherapy would find it very useful in assisting them with restoring their muscles and joints to their usual strength.
The team plans to collaborate with clinical partners to create a version of the exosuit for just this purpose. What the Wyss Institute has demonstrated so far has just been the general proof-of-concept for the Soft Exosuit. In time, and with further refinements, we could see all sorts of versions becoming available – from the militarized to the medical, from mobility assistance for seniors, to even astronauts looking to prevent atrophy.
And as always, technology that is initially designed to assist and address mobility issues is likely to give way to enhancement and augmentation. It’s therefore not hard to imagine a future where soft robotic exosuits are produced for every possible use, including recreation and transhumanism. Hell, it may even be foreseeable that an endoskeleton will be possible in the not-too-distant future, something implantable that can do the same job but be permanent…
Cool and scary! And be sure to check out this video from the Wyss Institute being tested:
There have been lots of high-speed bio-inspired robots in recent years, as exemplified by Boston Dynamics WildCat. But MIT’s Cheetah robot, which made its big debut earlier this month, is in a class by itself. In addition to being able to run at impressive speeds, bound, and jump over obstacles, this particular biomimetic robot is also being battery-and-motor driven rather than by a gasoline engine and hydraulics, and can function untethered (i.e. not connected to a power source).
While gasoline-powered robots are still very much bio-inspired, they are dependent on sheer power to try and match the force and speed of their flesh-and-blood counterparts. They’re also pretty noisy, as the demonstration of the WildCat certainly showed (video below). MIT’s Cheetah takes the alternate route of applying less power but doing so more efficiently, more closely mimicking the musculoskeletal system of a living creature.
This is not only a reversal on contemporary robotics, but a break from history. Historically, to make a robot run faster, engineers made the legs move faster. The alternative is to keep the same kind of frequency, but to push down harder at the ground with each step. As MIT’s Sangbae Kim explained:
Our robot can be silent and as efficient as animals. The only things you hear are the feet hitting the ground… Many sprinters, like Usain Bolt, don’t cycle their legs really fast. They actually increase their stride length by pushing downward harder and increasing their ground force, so they can fly more while keeping the same frequency.
MIT’s Cheetah uses much the same approach as a sprinter, combining custom-designed high-torque-density electric motors made at MIT with amplifiers that control the motors (also a custom MIT job). These two technologies, combined with a bio-inspired leg, allow the Cheetah to apply exactly the right amount of force to successfully bound across the ground and navigate obstacles without falling over.
When it wants to jump over an obstacle, it simply pushes down harder; and as you can see from the video below, the results speak for themselves. For now, the Cheetah can run untethered at around 16 km/h (10 mph) across grass, and hurdle over obstacles up to 33 centimeters high. The Cheetah currently bounds – a fairly simple gait where the front and rear legs move almost in unison – but galloping, where all four legs move asymmetrically, is the ultimate goal.
With a new gait, and a little byte surgery to the control algorithms, MIT hopes that the current Cheetah can hit speeds of up to 48 km/h (30 mph), which would make it the fastest untethered quadruped robot in the world. While this is still a good deal slower than the real thing – real cheetah’s can run up to 60 km/h (37 mph) – it will certainly constitute another big step for biomimetics and robotics.
Be sure to check out the video of the Cheetah’s test, and see how it differs from the Boston Dynamics/DARPA’s WildCat’s tests from October of last year:
The race to produce a new era or reusable and cost-effective spacecraft has been turning out some rather creative and interesting designs. DARPA’s XS-1 Spaceplane is certainly no exception. Developed by Northrop Grumman, in partnership with Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, this vehicle is a major step towards producing launch systems that will dramatically reduce the costs of getting into orbit.
Key to DARPA’s vision is to develop a space-delivery system for the US military that will restore the ability of the US to deploy military satellites ingeniously. In a rather ambitious twist, they want a vehicle that can be launched 10 times over a 10-day period, fly in a suborbital trajectory at speeds in excess of Mach 10, release a satellite launch vehicle while in flight, and reduce the cost of putting a payload into orbit to US$5 million (a tenth of the current cost).
Under DARPA contracts, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, and Northrop Grumman are working on their own versions of the spaceplane. The Northrop plan is to employ a reusable spaceplane booster that, when coupled with an expendable upper stage, can send a 1360 kgs (3,000 pounds) spacecraft into low Earth orbit. By comping reusable boosters with aircraft-like operations on landing, a more cost-effective and resilient spacecraft results.
In flight, the Northrop version of the XS-1 will take advantage of the company’s experience in unmanned aircraft to use a highly autonomous flight system and will release an expendable upper stage, which takes the final payload into orbit. While this is happening, the XS-1 will fly back to base and land on a standard runway like a conventional aircraft, refuel, and reload for the next deployment.
Northrop is working under a $3.9 million phase one contract with DARPA to produce a design and flight demonstration plan that will allow the XS-1 to not only act as a space launcher, but as a testbed for next-generation hypersonic aircraft. Meanwhile Scaled Composites, based in Mojave, will be in charge of fabrication and assembly while Virgin Galactic will handle commercial spaceplane operations and transition.
Doug Young, the vice president of missile defense and advanced missions at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, had this to say about the collaboration:
Our team is uniquely qualified to meet DARPA’s XS-1 operational system goals, having built and transitioned many developmental systems to operational use, including our current work on the world’s only commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. We plan to bundle proven technologies into our concept that we developed during related projects for DARPA, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, giving the government maximum return on those investments.
Regardless of which contractor’s design bears fruit, the future of space exploration is clear. In addition to focusing on cutting costs and reusability, it will depend heavily upon public and private sector collaboration. As private space companies grab a larger share of the space tourism and shipping market, they will be called upon to help pick up the slack, and lend their expertise to more ambitious projects.
Examples abound, from putting satellites, supplies and astronauts into orbit, to landing settlers on Mars itself. And who knows? In the foreseeable future, NASA, Russia, China, the ESA and Japan may also be working hand-in-hand with transport and energy companies to make space-based solar power and a space elevator a reality!
As a young man, there were few things cooler to me than tanks. Sure, I wanted to be a pilot at the time, with visions of fighter jets dancing in my head. But armored warfare and the cool and advanced designs of modern MBTs (Main Battle Tanks) were never far behind. And so I thought it was high time I did a post dedicated to the world of these behemoths and what the current crop have to offer.
Originally invented in World War I as a means of infantry support, tanks quickly evolved over the ensuing decades to become a distinct and fearsome weapon of war. In 1917, they were deployed as a means of breaking the stalemate caused by trench warfare, and were little more than lumbering, thinly-skinned land fortresses. But by 1939/40, their use as fast, cohesive offensive weapons that could break through enemy lines and encircle entire armies was demonstrated.
Throughout the Second World War, tanks continued to evolve to sport heavier armor and guns with increased size, range, and muzzle velocity. By the end of the war, some truly interesting designs had been produced by all sides, ranging from the light to the super-heavy. But these were largely abandoned in favor of designs that could be mass produced and had a good balance of speed, durability, firepower and protection.
And by the 1970’s, the Cold War spurred on numerous developments that would culminate in the c0ncept of the MBT. These included the development of lighter, composite armor and advanced anti-armor systems. In addition, the MBT concept was intended to fill the heavy direct fire role of modern armies and replace the light, medium, heavy and super-heavy tanks that were common.
Since that time, every major world power has produced its own variant of the MBT. Here are all the top contenders, group in alphabetical order…
AMX Leclerc: Named in honor of General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque, who led the French element of the drive towards Paris during World War II, the AMX Leclerc is The Main Battle Tank of France. Beginning production in 1991, the tank is now in service with the French Army, the army of the United Arab Emirates, and is also renowned for being the most expensive tank in history.
The tank’s main gun is the GIAT (Nexter) CN120-26 120mm smoothbore cannon, which is capable of firing the same NATO standard 120mm rounds as the German Leopard 2 and US M1 Abrams. Unlike other MBTs of its generation, the Leclerc comes with an autoloading system which reduces the crew to three, and has an ammo capacity of 40 rounds. It is also equipped with a 12.7 mm coaxial machine gun and a remote-controlled 7.62mm machine gun,
The hull and the turret are made of welded steel fitted with modular armor, which can be replaced easily for repair or upgraded over the years. Unlike other NATO tanks, the Leclerc does not use the standard Chobham composite armor and relies instead on a French variant that includes composite armor, titanium inserts on the sides of the turret, and Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) blocks.
It’s eight-cylinder 1,000KW (1,500 hp) diesel engine can achieve a top speed of 72 km/h (45 mph) and it has an operational range of 550 km (342 mi) or 650 km (400 mi) with external fuel tanks.
Arjun: The MBT of India and produced by the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), the Arjun is named after the main protagonist and world’s greatest archer from the Indian epic, The Mahabharata. Design of the tank began in 1974 as a way of providing the Indian Army with an indigenously-designed and built tank. But delays prevented it from being officially developed until 2004.
The Arjun sports a 120 mm main rifled gun with indigenously developed Armor-Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding-Sabot (APFSDS) ammunition, one 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun, and a 12.7 mm machine gun. The tanks is protected by the modular composite Kanchan armor that is composed of layers of composite alongside rolled homogenous steel, and a new honeycomb design of non-explosive and non-energetic reactive armor (NERA) is reportedly being tested as well.
Like most MBTs of its generation, the Arjun has a four-man crew, including the commander, gunner, loader and a driver. It is powered by a single MTU multi-fuel diesel engine rated at 1,400 hp, and can achieve a maximum speed of 70 km/h (43 mph) and a cross-country speed of 40 km/h (25 mph).
C1 Ariete: The MBT of the Italian Army, the Ariete was developed by a consortium formed by Iveco-Fiat and Oto Melara (aka CIO, Consorzio Iveco Oto Melara), with the chassis and engine produced by Iveco and the turret and fire-control system supplied by Oto Melara. Development began in 1988, with the first prototypes being delivered by 1995 and the tank entering into full service by 2002.
The Ariete’s main armament is a native 120 mm smoothbore cannon that uses the APFSDS-T, HEAT, and most NATO-standard rounds of the same caliber. The tank has a capacity of 42 rounds and secondary armaments consist of a 7.62 mm MG 42/59 coaxial machine gun and an additional 7.62 mm MG 42/59 configured as an anti-aircraft weapon that is fired from the hatch.
The vehicle carries the latest optical and digital-imaging and fire-control systems, which include a laser range-finder, thermal optics and a digital fire-control computer that can be networked. The Ariete’s armor is a steel and composite blend, similar to the British Challenger 2 and the American M1 Abrams. The tank is powered by a 25.8-litre turbo-charged Fiat-Iveco MTCA 12-cylinder diesel engine rated at 937 kilowatts (1,250 hp) that allows for a top cruising speed of 65 km/h.
Challenger 2: The MBT of the British Army, the Challenger 2 was designed and built by the British company Vickers Defence Systems (now known as BAE Systems Land and Armaments). Development of the tank began back in 1986 as an eventual replacement for the Challenger 1, which served as the mainstay of the British armor forces from the early 80s to the mid-90s.
The tanks main gun is the 120 millimeters L30A1 cannon which, unlike other NATO MBT’s, is rifled so that it can fire the high explosive squash head (HESH) rounds in addition to APFSDS armor-piercing rounds. The Challenger 2 is also armed with a 7.62 mm coaxial chain gun. a 7.62 mm roof-mounted machine gun, and can also mount a remote weapons system with a 7.62 mm machine gun, a 12.7mm heavy machine gun, or a 40mm automatic grenade launcher.
Challenger 2 is one of the most heavily armored and best protected tanks in the world, employing second-generation Chobham armor (aka. Dorchester) that is sloped in order to deflect the explosive energy of anti-tank weapons. Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) kits are also fitted as necessary along with additional bar armor and the tank’s shape is also designed with stealth technology to reduce radar signature.
The tank’s advanced targeting systems include a laser range-finder, night vision, thermal vision, digital fire control, and the option of a Battlefield Information Control System. It’s drive system consists of a Perkins 26.6 liter CV12 diesel engine delivering 890 kW (1,200 hp). It is capable of reaching 60 km/h (37 mph) on open road for 450 km (280 mi), or 40 km/h (25 mph) cross-country for 250 km (156 mi).
K2 Black Panther: A fourth-generation MBT in service with the South Korean armed forces, the K2 began development in 1995 and officially entered service in 2014. Despite enjoying technical superiority over North Korea’s aging army of T-55 and T-59 tanks, the purpose of the K2 was to create an MBT using entirely indigenous technology which could also be sold on the foreign export.
In terms of armament, the K2 comes equipped with L55 120 mm 55 caliber smoothbore gun that – capable of firing standard APFSDS rounds, as well as the Korean Smart Top-Attack Munition (KSTAM) anti-tank missile – a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun and a 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun. It also comes equipped with an advanced Fire Control System (FCS) linked to a millimeter band radar system along with a traditional laser range-finder and crosswind sensor.
In terms of protection, the K2 employs a classified type of composite armor with ERA and NERA modular add-ons, in addition to soft-kill and hard-kill anti-missile defense systems. It also has a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), radar jammer and Laser Warning Receivers (LWR) to alert the crew if the vehicle becomes “painted” and to deploy Visual and Infrared Screening Smoke (VIRSS) grenades.
The tanks drive system is a 4-cycle, 12-cylinder water-cooled diesel engine capable of generating 1,100 kW (1500 hp), with an operation range of 450 kilometers (280 mi). Its top speed on paved road is 70 km/h (43 mph), and 50 km/h (31 mph) cross-country.
Leopard 2: Developed by Krauss-Maffei in the early 1970s for the West German Army, the Leopard 2 entered service in 1979 to replace the older Leopard 1 models. In addition to being the MBT of a united Germany after 1989, the Leopard 2 is also one of the most widely-used tanks in the world, serving in a total of 16 armies that range from Germany and Austria, to Canada, Turkey, Singapore and Indonesia. Due to improved technology, the tank has also gone through many variations.
The primary gun on the Leopard 2 is the Rheinmetall L/44 120 mm smoothbore gun, which is capable of firing APFSDS warheads as well as the German DM12 multipurpose anti-tank projectile (MPAT) and the LAHAT anti-tank guided missile. It also has two 7.62mm machine guns, a coaxially-mounted one in the turret, and the other on an external anti-aircraft mount. The tank also has a stabilization system, a laser rangefinder, thermal imaging and a fire control computer.
For protection, the Leopard 2 uses spaced, multi-layered composite armor that incorporates Rolled Homogenous Armor (RHA), interior spall liners and the option of slat armor on the sides to protect from Rocket-Propelled Grenades (RPGs). The Leopard 2 is also equipped with a fire protection system that automatically dispenses halomethane foam in the event that the interior temperature rises above a certain point.
It is powered by a 1,103 kW (1,479 hp) V-12 liquid-cooled twin-turbo diesel engine with a fuel capacity of 1200 liters (317 gallons). It has a top speed of 72 km/h (45 mph) and an operational range of 550 km (340 mi).
M1 Abrams:The M1 is a third-generation tank and the MBT of the US Army US Marine Corps, Australian, Egyptian, Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian armies. Development began in 1972 and culminated in 79, with the first tanks entering service in 1980 to replace the older M60 Patton tank. Since that time, it has gone through multiple upgrades and variants in order to take advantage of the latest in technology.
Though the original M1 was equipped with the M68A1 105 mm rifled tank gun, it was quickly upgraded to a 44 and then 55 caliber 120 mm smoothbore gun (variants on Rheinmetall’s L/44 and L/55 used by the Leopard 2). It is capable of firing the APFSDS and HEAT rounds, as well as the M1028 anti-personnel canister cartridge. It also comes with two 7.62mm machine guns – one coaxial and one turret-mounted – and a 12.7mm machine gun mounted by the commander’s hatch.
The tank also has a full-stabilization system for the main gun an comes equipped with a laser rangefinder, crosswind sensor, a pendulum static cant sensor, thermal imaging and a firing computer. The tank’s crew is protected by a halon firefighting system similar to the Leopard 2’s, and a rear ammo compartment with blowout panels that protect the crew from its own ammo exploding.
The tank is protected by composite armor that is composed of alloys of steel, ceramics, plastic composites, and Kevlar, similar to British Chobam armor. It may also be fitted with reactive armor over the track skirts if needed and slat armor over the rear of the tank and rear fuel cells to protect against RPGs. Beginning in 1987, M1A1 tanks also received armor packages that incorporated depleted uranium components at the front of the turret and hull.
The M1 is powered by a 1,120 kW (1500 hp) turbine engine that is capable of running on gas or diesel with a fuel capacity of 1900 liters (500 gallons) and an operational range of 426 km (265 mi). The M1 and M1A1 have a a top speed of 67/72 km/h (42/45 mph) on the road and or 40/48 km/h (25/30 mph) off-road respectively.
Merkava IV: The latest MBT of the Israeli Defense Forces, the Merkava and its predecessors have the distinction of being designed with considerable input from soldiers themselves. The fourth variant of the Merkava program, the Mark IV began development in 1999 and entered service by 2004. Like its predecessors, it was designed for rapid repair of battle damage, survivability, cost-effectiveness and off-road performance.
Following the model of contemporary self-propelled howitzers, the turret assembly is located closer to the rear than in most main battle tanks and has the engine in front to provide additional protection against a frontal attack. It also has a rear entrance to the main crew compartment allowing easy access under enemy fire. This allows the tank to be used as a platform for medical disembarkation, a forward command and control station, and an armored personnel carrier.
The Mark IV includes the larger 120 mm smoothbore gun that can the HEAT and APFSDS rounds, using an electrical semi-automatic revolving magazine for 10 rounds. It also includes two 7.62 machine guns for anti-infantry defense. a 60 mm mortar, and a 12.7 mm machine gun for anti-vehicle operations. The tank’s 1112 KW (1,500 hp) turbocharged diesel engine can achieve a top road speed of 64 km/h (40 mph).
Some features, such as hull shaping, exterior non-reflective paints, and shielding for engine heat plumes mixing with air particles are designed to confuse enemy thermal imagers and make the tank harder to spot by heat sensors and radar. It also comes equipped with sectioned, modular armor that can be easily removed and replaced and carries the BMS (Battle Management System) – a centralized system that networks and shares data from all over the battlefield.
T-90: A third-generation MBT that is essentially a modernization of the T-72B and incorporating many of the features of the T-80U, the T-90 is the mainstay of the Russian armed forces. Proposed as a way of creating a single design that would cost less than employing tanks at once, the T-90 sought to marry the mass-production-friendly aspects of the T-72B with the modern amenities of the T-80U. Production began in 1992 and has continued unabated since.
The T-90’s main armament is a 125 mm smoothbore cannon that is capable of firing APFSDS rounds, high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT-FS), and high explosive fragmentation (HE-FRAG) rounds, as well as the Refleks anti-tank guided missile. It also comes with a 12.7mm remotely controlled anti-aircraft heavy machine gun above the commanders hatch and a coaxial 7.62 mm machine gun.
The T-90 is fitted with a “three-tiered” protection system, the first of which is composite armor in the turret that consists of a basic armor shell with an insert of alternating layers of aluminum and plastics and a controlled deformation section. The second tier is third generation Kontakt-5 ERA blocks which, along with sandwiching steel plates and composite filler, make up the turret’s forward armor package.
The third tier is a Shtora-1 (“curtain”) countermeasures suite that includes two electro-optical/IR “dazzlers” on the front of the turret (the distinct Red Eyes), four Laser warning receivers, two 3D6 aerosol grenade discharging systems and a computerized control system. The Shtora-1 warns the tank’s crew when the tank has been ‘painted’ and infrared jammer jams the guidance system of some anti-tank guided missiles.
The tank is powered by a 12-cylinder diesel engine that comes in the 618 kW (840 hp), 746 kW (950 hp), and 930 kW (1250 hp) varieties. Depending on the type of engine, the T-90 has an operational range of 550-700 kms (340-430 mi) and a top speed of 60–65 km/h (37–40 mph).
Type 10 Hitomaru: Designed to replace Japan’s aging Type 90, the Type 10 is a fourth-generation MBT and the second to be entirely developed by Japan for use by the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. Development began in the 1990’s, the first prototypes being showcased at the 2008 Technology Research and Development Institute (TRDI), and the tank officially entered service with the armed forces by 2012.
In terms of armaments, the Type 10 is believed to use a 120 mm smoothbore gun developed by Japan Steel Works, similar to the L/44, L/50, and L/55 guns licensed by Rheinmetall. The gun is capable of firing all standard 120 mm NATO ammunition, including the newly developed APFSDS round. It also has a roof-mounted 12.7 mm machine gun and a coaxial 7.62 mm machine gun.
The vehicle’s armor consists of modular sections, composed of nano-crystal steel (or Triple Hardness Steel) and modular ceramic composite armor. The tank also has an auto loader which reduces the crew size to three, and comes with day and night sights as standard features. It also has the C4I (Command, Control, Communication, Computer & Intelligence) system which can be incorporated into the JGSDF network to enable sharing of information among units.
The tanks is powered by a 883 kW (12oo hp) V8 Diesel engine that is capable of acheiving speeds of up to 70 km/h (43 mph) in both forward and reverse, and has an operational range of 440 km (273 mi).
Type 99: Also known as ZTZ-99 and WZ-123, and developed from the Type 98, the Type 99 is a third generation main battle tank (MBT) fielded by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Much like its predecessor, the T-99 is designed to compete with both contemporary Russian and western designs. Development began in 2001 and a prototype was unveiled at the China People’s Revolution Military Museum in Beijing during the 2007 Our troops towards the sun exhibition.
The main armament is the 125 mm smoothbore gun which is capable of firing sabot APFSDS, HEAT, and HE-FRAG projectiles, as well as the Soviet AT-11 laser-guided anti-tank missiles and a specially-developed depleted uranium round. It also comes with a remotely operated 12.7 mm machine gun, a commander’s 12.7 mm machine gun, and coaxially-mounted 7.62 mm machine gun.
Though the nature of the Type 99’s armor protection remains classified, it is assumed to be of comparable RHA strength to other third-generation designs, as well as an experimental composite armor known as transparent ceramic. There is also observational evidence that the armor includes modular composite armor that comes in block form, or the addition of ERA blocks.
The Type 99 is powered by a 1100 kW (1500 hp) liquid-cooled diesel engine, with a special (2100 hp) engine for the
Type 99KM model. The tank has a maximum speed of 80 km/h (50 mph) with an operational range of 600 km (373 mi).
Summary/The Future: When looking at the full spectrum of third-generation and fourth-generation tank designs, a few common features become clear. Tanks that were conceived and designed during and after the 1970’s were all intended to take advantage of the latest in tank and anti-tank systems, and for good reason. Since their inception in the second decade of the 20th century, tanks grew in speed, lethality and versatility. Hence, countless systems were devised to knock them out.
In addition to anti-tank rifles and guns that were used throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, these ensuing decades added rockets and rocket-propelled grenades. At the same time, tanks themselves began to sport larger caliber guns with increased range, velocity and more sophisticated warheads. By the 1960’s, optically-tracked and computer-guided missiles were introduced and led to more rounds of innovation.
This led to the introduction of composite armor, which included aluminum alloy, ceramics, depleted uranium, and rolled homogenous steel. This was developed simultaneously with the advent of depleted uranium sabot rounds, shaped charge plasma rounds, and guided missiles that could be fired from a tank gun. Basically, third-generation tanks would combined the ultimate in tank protection and anti-tank weaponry.
Stabilization systems were also introduced along the way which had a revolutionary impact. Prior to their use, tanks were forced to stop driving in order to fire a shot at the enemy, which made them temporarily vulnerable. But with the new stabilizers – as well as targeting computers, night vision, and laser range finders – tanks were now extremely accurate, could fire while on the move, and could engage the enemy day or night.
Today’s fourth-generation tanks take advantage of all of this, and add to it with networking capabilities, more sophisticated computers, and defensive systems that let the crew know when they are being targeted by laser-guided munitions. Armor is also becoming increasingly modular and component-based so tanks can add to their protection or strip down to lighten their loads and increase their speeds.
When it comes to the future of tank warfare, the same forces appear to be at work. Basically, tank systems need to be smarter, stealthier, and more adaptable rather than simply heavier and more lethal. As such, there are numerous projects being developed by DARPA and other defense agencies around the world to create “stealth tanks”, vehicles that would be invisible to thermal imagine and could take advantage of adaptive camouflage to avoid being spotted.
At the same time, there are efforts to create universal combat systems, such as a heavy military vehicle platform that can be fitted to serve in a number of roles. A perfect example of this is Russia’s Armata Universal Combat Platform, a tracked platform will be the basis for a main battle tank, a heavy infantry fighting vehicle, a combat engineering vehicle, an armored recovery vehicle, a heavy armored personnel carrier, a tank support combat vehicle or a self-propelled artillery gun.
With such a system, combat engineers would be able to mount whatever turret or additional components they need to create a vehicle of their choice, one which is suited to the combat role or mission it is expected to perform. This sort of adaptability and versatility also informs ideas for a new class of AFVs (Armored Fighting Vehicles) that would be lighter, more mobile, and could be retrofitted to act as a tank, APC, IFV, command vehicle, or anything else needed.
There are even plans to develop a whole new race of warmachines that would rely on a combination of avoidance, stealth, speed and maneuverability rather than heavy, modular armor for protection. Who can tell which will bear fruit ultimately? At this point though, one thing is clear: in the coming years, tanks will continue to get smarter and become increasingly networked, turning each one into a mobile command and combat platform.
As armies continue to modernize, the challenge of creating new fighting vehicles that withstand the latest in battlefield conditions, and at the same time be more cost-effective, is a constant. And, as the latest announcements made by DARPA and General Dynamics over the course of the summer can attest, its been known to produce some pretty interesting and innovate design concepts.
Known as the Ground X-Vehicle Technology (or GXV-T for short) the aim of this DARPA-funded program is to develop a lighter, more agile successors to the tank. Whereas tanks in the past have always responded to the development of more and better anti-tank weapons with heavier more elaborate armor, the focus of the GXV-T will be on protection that does not result in yet another bigger, badder, and way more expensive tank.
Beginning in 1917, the development of the tank led to a revolution is modern warfare, which has led to an ongoing arms race ever since. In just the last half-century, the guns used to take out tanks have been joined by rockets, guided missiles, and high-tech rounds designed to penetrate the thickest steel. Tank designers have responded with composite armor, reactive armor, and even electric countermeasures to detonate warheads before they make contact.
The result of this is a spiral of larger weapons, leading to larger tanks, leading to larger weapons until the mainline tanks of today have become behemoths so large that they are difficult to deploy, very expensive and can only be used in certain environments. To prevent this, DARPA wants to not just produce a more advanced tank, but one that moves away from relying so heavily on armor for survival.
The GXV-T is intended to pursue technologies that move away from armor with the goal of making tanks 50 percent smaller, with crews half their present size, able to move at double the present speed, make them capable of operating over 95 percent of the terrain, and make them harder to detect and engage. As Kevin Massey, DARPA program manager, explained:
GXV-T’s goal is not just to improve or replace one particular vehicle – it’s about breaking the ‘more armor’ paradigm and revolutionizing protection for all armored fighting vehicles. Inspired by how X-plane programs have improved aircraft capabilities over the past 60 years, we plan to pursue groundbreaking fundamental research and development to help make future armored fighting vehicles significantly more mobile, effective, safe and affordable.
What this amounts to is finding ways to build tanks that can move around the battlefield like off-road vehicles, can dodge incoming fire rather than taking it, reposition its armor to its most effective angle, provide the crews with full situational awareness similar to that afforded fighter pilots, and make them stealthy against both infrared and electromagnetic detection.
To achieve this, DARPA is soliciting new concepts and new technologies for designers. As you can see from the concept art above, some ideas have already been floated, but they remain very much in the design stage for now. The agency says that it hopes to see new GVX-T technologies emerge two years after the first contracts – which are slated to be awarded in April next year – with the hopes that the new technologies can be fast-tracked into demonstrators.
Meanwhile, General Dynamics is busy producing what will amount to the next-generation of armored vehicles. As part of a contract with the British Ministry of Defence (MoD), the company has been contracted to deliver 589 light-armor Scout Specialist Vehicles (SV) to the Army between 2017 and 2024. The tracked, medium-weight armored vehicle is designed to provide state-of-the-art, best-in-class protection for its crews.
The Scout SV is intended to fill an important role in the British Army’s Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability. The Scout comes in six variants based on a common platform with shared mobility, electronics, and survivability systems, has an open electronic architecture, a modular armor system, and places emphasis on the ability to upgrade in order to incorporate new technology and meet new threats.
The Scout variants include Reconnaissance, Protected Mobility Reconnaissance Support (PMRS), Command and Control, Engineering Reconnaissance, Repair, and Recovery. According to General Dynamics, these are designed to provide the basics of protection, survivability, reliability, mobility and all-weather ISTAR capabilities for a wide range of extended military operations at a reduced cost.
The Scout’s main armament in its turret-mounted 40-mm cannon, but it also comes equipped with acoustic detectors, a laser warning system, a local situational awareness system, an electronic countermeasure system, a route-marking system, and a high-performance power pack. The announced contract also includes the provision of support and training by General Dynamics for the delivered vehicles.
The deal represents the single biggest contract for armored vehicles that the British Army has signed since the 1980s. It also comes on the eve of a NATO Summit, and at a time when Britain is contemplating the future of its forces as it prepares for future operations similar to what it experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq. In these cases, the warfare was unconventional and prolonged, requiring a whole set of strategies.
As British Prime Minister David Cameron declared when speaking of the deal:
With the second largest defence budget in NATO, meeting NATO’s two per cent of GDP spending target and investing in new capabilities to deal with the emerging threats we are ensuring Britain’s national security, staying at the forefront of the global race and providing leadership within NATO.
As the saying goes: “necessity is the mother of invention”. Well, there is nothing more necessary in war than making machines that are practical, effective, and not cost the taxpayers an arm and a leg. Between dwindling budgets, improved technology, and the fact that future operations are likely to take place in war-torn and impoverished areas, the race to build a weapon-system that can handle it all is sure to be both interesting and productive!
One of the aims of modern medicine is perfecting the way we tests treatments and drugs, so that the lengthy guess-work and clinical trials can be shortened or even cut out of the equation. While this would not only ensure the speedier delivery of drugs to market, it would also eliminate the need for animal testing, something which has become increasingly common and controversial in recent years.
Over the last century, animal testing has expanded from biomedical research to included things like drug, chemical, and cosmetic testing. One 2008 study conducted by The Guardian estimated that 115 million animals are used a year for scientific research alone. It is therefore no surprise that opposition is growing, and that researchers, regulators and even military developers are looking for more accurate, efficient, and cruelty-free alternatives.
Enter the National Insitute of Health in Besthesda, Maryland; where researchers have teamed up with the FDA and even DARPA to produce a major alternative. Known as the “Human Body-on-a Chip”, this device is similar to other “Organs-on-a-chip” in that it is basically a small, flexible pieces of plastic with hollow micro-fluidic channels lined with human cells that can mimic human systems far more effectively than simple petri dish cell cultures.
Dan Tagle, the associate director of the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, explained the benefits of this technology as follows:
If our goal is to create better drugs, in a way that is much more efficient, time and cost-wise, I think it’s almost inevitable that we will have to either minimize or do away with animal testing.
What’s more, chips like this one could do away with animal testing entirely, which is not only good news for animals and activists, but drug companies themselves. As it stands, pharmaceutical companies have hit a wall in developing new drugs, with roughly 90% failing in human clinical trials based on safety and effectiveness. One reason for this high rate of failure is that drugs that first seem promising in rodents often don’t have the same response in people.
In fact, so-called “animal models” are only typically 30% to 60% predictive of human responses, and there are potentially life-saving drug therapies that never make it to human clinical trials because they’re toxic to mice. In these cases, there’s no way to measure the lost opportunity when animals predict the wrong response. And all told, it takes an average of 14 years and often billions of dollars to actually deliver a new drug to the market.
According to Geraldine Hamilton, a senior staff scientist at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, it all began five years ago with the “lung-on-a-chip”:
We’ve also got the lung, gut, liver and kidney. We’re working on skin. The goal is really to do the whole human body, and then we can fluidically link multiple chips to capture interactions between different organs and eventually recreate a body on a chip.
This has led to further developments in the technology, and Hamilton is now launching a new startup company to bring it to the commercial market. Emulate, the new startup that will license Wyss’s technology, isn’t looking to literally create a human body but rather to represent its “essential functions” and develop a platform that’s easy for all scientists and doctors to use, says Hamilton, who will become Emulate’s president and chief scientific officer.
Borrowing microfabrication techniques from the semiconductor industry, each organ-on-a-chip is built with small features – such as channels, vessels, and flexible membranes – designed to recreate the flow and forces that cells experience inside a human body. All that’s needed are different chips with different culture of human cells; then researchers can performed tests to see how drugs work in one region of the body before being metabolized by the liver.
This might one day help the military to test treatments for biological or chemical weapons, a process that is unethical (and illegal) with humans, and cruel and often inaccurate with animals. Hospitals may also be able to use a patient’s own stem cells to develop and test “personalized” treatments for their disease, and drug companies could more quickly screen promising new drugs to see if they are effective and what (if any) side effects they have on the body’s organs.
It’s a process that promises speedier tests, quicker delivery, a more cost-effective medical system, and the elimination of cruel and often inaccurate animal testing. Can you say win-win-win?
Given the advances in medical technology, it is quite surprising when it comes to gunshot wounds and battlefield injuries, old-world methods are still be used. For example, if a soldier is wounded in an extremity such as the the arm of leg, bandages and/or tourniquets should suffice. But for wounds that occur center mass, or at the junction of an extremity (neck, groin, or shoulder), stopping the flow of blood usually involves simply packing the wound with gauze.
However, in recent months, new and improved solutions have been developed. The first was the XStat, a new type of syringe that contains hundreds of injectable sponges that was developed by a former Special Ops medic and his Oregon-based startup, RevMedX. Similarly, former military and trauma surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital have been working on Wound Stasis Technology, an injectable foam that is fed into the stomach to stop internal bleeding.
And now, a group of students from Johns Hopkins University are working on a hardening foam that can be injected directly into flesh wounds to stop the bleeding. Combining the best of both worlds, the concept involves using a plastic syringe that contains two liquids – polyol and a diisocyanatein – that form a polyurethane foam that expands to fill the wound cavity and then hardens.
This hardened foam not only seals the wound shut, but applies pressure to stop the bleeding. Additionally, while still in its liquid state, the foam is able to run deep and thoroughly into the cavity. This is important, as it’s often difficult to find the sources of blood loss in such injuries, and then apply clotting agents to them. And once the soldier is evacuated to a hospital, the foam is easily removed.
As Sydney Rooney, the student team leader of the John Hopkins research team, said in an interview with Gizmag:
Since the wound will have to be debrided extensively anyway [have its damaged tissue removed], we are not anticipating any issue in that regard. We are still testing it so we don’t know the final answer, but our physicians aren’t anticipating for it to be a problem. Ideally, most of the block will be removed in one chunk.
When addressing the army’s Wound Stasis Technology, which is currently being developed with the help of DARPA, Rooney claimed that there system is different. Whereas the DARPA system is designed for internal bleeding, applying the same methodology to surface wounds would be impractical. Hence their particular brand of injectable foam, which expands to a degree to stop “junctional bleeds”.
Or as he explained it:
Their foam expands to a way larger size and more aggressively than many a junctional bleed permits. Since the stomach expands, their foam expands by 30 times and it doesn’t matter, whereas if you put it in, say, a junctional neck wound, it could apply too much pressure.
The Johns Hopkins device has so far been tested on flesh-simulating gel containing artificial blood vessels, with animal trials planned to take place next. By the time it comes to market, it will be well positioned alongside DARPA’s WST foam for treating battlefield wounds. It may come up against the XStat for treating flesh wounds, but room certainly exists from similar products given the sheer number of wounds on the battlefield.
And given the amount of gun-related violence in the United States and around the world, these inventions will certainly be welcomed by trauma surgeons and police forces once they trickle down to the civilian market. And in the meantime, be sure to check out this cool video from John Hopkins University, where Rooney and her team present their new invention:
Developing implants that can restore damaged neural tissue – either by restoring the connections between damaged memory synapses or restoring cognitive function – is seen as the next great leap in prosthetic medicine. In recent years, steps have been taken in both areas, offering patients and willing subjects the option of restoring or hacking their neurology.
For example, last year, researchers working at the University of California and the University of Pennsylvania successfully managed to design and implement a brain implant that acted as a bypass for damaged brain tissue. This neural prosthesis successfully restored brain function in rats, demonstrating that the closed-loop brain-machine-brain interface could one day perform the same function in brain-damaged humans.
And as with many such projects, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) soon became involved, taking up the reins to fund the research and development of the technology. As part of the DARPA Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program, the device is currently being developed with the hope of restoring memory function in veterans who have suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Currently, over 270,000 military service members since 2000 and an estimated 1.7 million civilians in the US are affected by TBI, which often manifests as an inability to retrieve memories formed before being injured and an impaired ability to form new memories. Currently, there are also no effective treatments available, and beyond veterans, there are countless people around the world who suffer from the same condition as a result of accidents.
The teams will first develop computer models that describe how neurons code memories, as well as analyzing neural signals in order to understand how targeted stimulation might help restore the brain’s ability to form memories. The UCLA team will use data collected from epilepsy patients that already have electrodes implanted in their brains to develop a model of the hippocampal-entorhinal system – known to be involved in learning and memory.
Meanwhile, the University of Pennsylvania team will study neurosurgical patients with implanted brain electrodes, recording data as they play computer-based memory games in order to gain an understanding of how successful memory function works. All patients will be volunteers, and the teams then plan to integrate these models into implantable closed-loop systems.
Like the research on rats, the implant will pick up neural signals from an undamaged section of the brain and route it around the damaged portion, effectively forming a new neural link that functions as well as the undamaged brain. And this is not the only research that aims to help assist in memory function when it comes to veterans and those suffering from TBI.
At Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL), for example, efforts are being made to create a new type of “memory bridge”. This research builds upon similar efforts from USC, where researcher Ted Berger developed the first implantable memory device (coincidentally, also as part of DARPA’s RAM program) where limited electrodes were applied to the hippocampal regions of the brain to assist in recall and memory formation.
However, until now, no research lab has had any real clue as to what kinds of “codes” are involved when applying electrical stimulus to the brain. The LLNL group, which previously contributed to the groundbreaking Argus II retinal prosthesis is now taking a more integrated approach. With the recent announcement of ample federal BRAIN Initiative funding, they aim to build multifunction electro-optical-chemical neural sensor-effectors.
On the electrical end, LLNL’s new wafer technology will use fairly high electrode counts (perhaps 500-1000 spots). Compared to the usual higher density 11,000-electrode chips that have been used in the past, these chips will have more sparsely distributed electrode locations. Integrated light guides will provide conduits for optogenetic manipulations, and as an added bonus bi-directional fluid channels for any number of chemical exchanges are also etched in.
And like their California/Penn colleagues, the LLNL has teamed up with DARPA to get the funding they need to make this project a reality. So far, DARPA funders have brought in the implant heavyweight Medtronic, which made news last year with the development of its own closed-loop stimulators, to lend its expertise. In their case, the stimulators merged Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) with Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) to treat Parkinson’s.
Unfortunately, while immense progress in being made at the hardware end of things, there is still the matter of cracking the brains code first. In other words, where the device needs to be placed and which neurons need to be precisely controlled remain a mystery. Not all neurons are the same, and control hierarchies and preferred activation paths will inevitably emerge.
Ultimately, what is needed in order to make precisely-targeted deep brain stimulation (DBS) possible is a real 3D model of the regions of the brain involved. Multiple efforts are underway, not the least of which are the work of Michele Tagliati’s group from the Movement Disorders Program in the department of neurology at Cedars-Sinai, or the Human Brain Project in Luasanne, Switzerland.
In these and other cases, the use of MRIs and brain scans to create a working map of the human brain – so that attempts to create biomimetic prosthetics that can enhance or assist in it’s functions – is the ultimate goal. And once researchers have a better idea of what the brain’s layout is, and what kinds of control hierarchies and paths are involved, we can expect to see brain implants becoming a regular feature of medicine.
And as always, devices that can restore function also open the way for the possibility of enhancement. So we can also expect that bionics prosthetics that restore memory and cognitive function will give way to ones that boost these as well. The dream of Homo Superior, the post-human, or transhumanism – whatever you choose to call it – is looking to be increasingly within our grasp.
And be sure to check out this video from LLNL showcasing how their new neural implant works:
It’s no secret that the progress being made in terms of robotics, autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence is making many people nervous. With so many science fiction franchises based on the of intelligent robots going crazy and running amok, its understandable that the US Department of Defense would seek to get in front of this issue before it becomes a problem. Yes, the US DoD is hoping to preemptively avoid a Skynet situation before Judgement Day occurs. How nice.
Working with top computer scientists, philosophers, and roboticists from a number of US universities, the DoD recently began a project that will tackle the tricky topic of moral and ethical robots. Towards this end, this multidisciplinary project will first try to pin down exactly what human morality is, and then try to devise computer algorithms that will imbue autonomous robots with moral competence — basically, the ability to recognize right from wrong and choose the former.
This project is being carried out by researchers from Tufts, Brown, and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), with funding from the Office of Naval Research (ONR). ONR, like DARPA, is a wing of the Department of Defense that mainly deals with military research and development. The first task, as already mentioned, will be to use theoretical (philosophical) and empirical (experimental) research to try to isolate essential elements of human morality.
These findings will then be extrapolated into a formal moral framework, which in turn can be implemented in software – most likely some kind of deep neural network. Assuming they can isolate some kind or “moral imperative”, the researchers will then take an advanced robot — something like Atlas or BigDog — and imbue its software with a algorithm that captures this. Whenever an ethical situation arises, the robot would then turn to this programming to decide what avenue was the best coarse of action.
One of the researchers involved in the project, Selmer Bringsjord at RPI, envisions these robots using a two-stage approach for picking right from wrong. First the AI would perform a “lightning-quick ethical check” — like “should I stop and help this wounded soldier?” Depending on the situation, the robot would then decide if deeper moral reasoning is required — for example, if the robot should help the wounded soldier or carry on with its primary mission of delivering vital ammo and supplies to the front line where other soldiers are at risk?
Eventually, this moralistic AI framework will also have to deal with tricky topics like lethal force. For example, is it okay to open fire on an enemy position? What if the enemy is a child soldier? Should an autonomous UAV blow up a bunch of terrorists? What if it’s only 90% sure that they’re terrorists, with a 10% chance that they’re just innocent villagers? What would a human UAV pilot do in such a case — and will robots only have to match the moral and ethical competence of humans or be held to a higher standard?
While we’re not yet at the point where military robots have to decide which injured soldier to carry off the battlefield, or where UAVs can launch Hellfire missiles at terrorists without human intervention, it’s very easy to imagine a future where autonomous robots are given responsibility for making those kinds of moral and ethical decisions in real time. In short, the decision by the DoD to begin investigating a morality algorithm demonstrates foresight and sensible planning.
In that respect, it is not unlike the recent meeting that took place at the United Nations European Headquarters in Geneva, where officials and diplomats sought to address placing legal restrictions on autonomous weapons systems, before they evolve to the point where they can kill without human oversight. In addition, it is quite similar to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an organization which is seeking to preemptively ban the use of automated machines that are capable of using lethal force to achieve military objectives.
In short, it is clearly time that we looked at the feasibility of infusing robots (or more accurately artificial intelligence) with circuits and subroutines that can analyze a situation and pick the right thing to do — just like a human being. Of course, this raises further ethical issues, like how human beings frequently make choices others would consider to be wrong, or are forced to justify actions they might otherwise find objectionable. If human morality is the basis for machine morality, paradoxes and dilemmas are likely to emerge.
But at this point, it seems all but certain that the US DoD will eventually break Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics — the first of which is “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it will open Pandora’s box. On the one hand, it’s probably a good idea to replace human soldiers with robots. But on the other, if the US can field an entirely robotic army, war as a tool of statecraft suddenly becomes much more acceptable.
As we move steadily towards a military force that is populated by autonomous robots, the question of controlling them, and whether or not we are even capable of giving them the tools to choose between right and wrong, will become increasingly relevant. And above all, the question of whether or not moral and ethical robots can allow for some immoral and unethical behavior will also come up. Who’s to say they won’t resent how they are being used and ultimately choose to stop fighting; or worse, turn on their handlers?
My apologies, but any talk of killer robots has to involve that scenario at some point. It’s like tradition! In the meantime, be sure to stay informed on the issue, as public awareness is about the best (and sometimes only) safeguard we have against military technology being developed without transparency, not to mention running amok!