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Boston dynamics quadruped robot has recently been spotted working in reconnaissance during a two-day-long, military training exercise alongside the French army. This brings about a few questions in regards to what the US firm’s robot dog could be used for in future applications. Sure it is reconnaissance for now but could that lead to robotic warfare, and should we have concerns?

France’s foremost military school, the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr shared some pictures of the exercises on Twitter. The tests were described as “raising students’ awareness of the challenges of tomorrow,” which also include the “robotization of the battlefield.” Some responded with killer robot worries.

The report by French newspaper Ouest-France sheds some light on more detail, saying that Spot was only one of a series of robots that were being tested by students from France’s École Militaire Interarmes (Combined Arms School), with the intention of assessing the usefulness of robots on future battlefields.

Michael Perry the vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics told theverge that it wasn’t notified about the military use of Spot prior and stated that Shark Robotics a European company had distributed it to them. He stated his surprise candidly “We’re learning about it as you are,” says Perry. “We’re not clear on the exact scope of this engagement.”

Ouest-France reports that spot was put through several scenarios over the course of the two days by soldiers. Some of the exercises were offensive action and others were defensive. The robot was tested under night-time as well as daytime conditions and scenarios included crossroad capture and urban combat set-ups. They performed each scenario with just soldiers and then reset the scene running through with robot assistance and vice-versa to determine how much of a difference the machines can truly make. 

As from the sources quoted in the article, the robots actually slowed down operations but still helped to keep troops safe. “During the urban combat phase where we weren’t using robots, I died. But I didn’t die when we had the robot do a recce first,” one of the soldiers shared. Supposedly the only real weakness that Spot showed in situ was a lack of stamina. The battery life didn’t appear to be efficient enough to keep up with all that was expected. The robot apparently died mid-exercise.

For the time being, neither Shark Robotics nor the École de Saint-Cyr was inclined to comment on the specific ins and outs of Spots use. So we can only speculate about the role Spot was playing but Ouest-France believes it was strictly reconnaissance. With remote control cameras and a quadruped design that allows the 70lb Spot (31kg) robot to navigate difficult terrain, it is ideally suited for such a deployment. It has previously taken part in similar scenario testing, working to remote survey sites in a safer manner. The robot has proven its capabilities on construction sites, inside factories, and even underground mines.

Given Spot’s track record and the fact that the French military has previously tested similar reconnaissance machinery, it is no surprise they had an interest in trying the Boston Dynamic dog out. James Vincent reported for theverge and pointed out that in the past, the French army put OPTIO-X20 through its paces. OPTIO-X20 is a remote-controlled vehicle decked out with tank treads. It was developed by Milrem Robotics and harbors an autocannon. The army also evaluated ULTRO, a wheeled comrade developed in-house by Nexter to help carry equipment. Shark Robotics who purportedly lent the army Spot also previously supplied them with a multi-purpose wheeled drone Barakuda to try out. The latter of which is covered with armored plating to help provide mobile cover.

The applications of machines within the military have benefits however it is fair to say that Spot’s involvement with simulated battlefield action has raised a few eyebrows. Boston Dynamics has had involvement in developing robotics for the US army in the past but has since moved away from military exploits as it widened its commercial market. Spot has a lot of potentials and plenty of sectors are testing its uses including by the NYPD and other police forces. Boston Dynamics has always maintained a peaceful stance, saying they would never arm their robots. “We unequivocally do not want any customer using the robot to harm people,” says Perry.

In fact, within the terms and conditions of Spot, it implicitly details that the machine must not be used “to harm or intimidate any person or animal, as a weapon, or to enable any weapon”.Technically Spot was being utilized purely to scout buildings ahead of human soldiers and isn’t exactly doing any harm. But where is the line, if the robot is used to recon before a deadly military engagement?

Although the company has clear policies that forbid their customers from weaponization the deployment of non-weaponized robots for military practice is still being evaluated as there is clearly a grey area. In an article Perry says on behalf of Boston Dynamics;

“We think that the military, to the extent that they do use robotics to take people out of harm’s way, we think that’s a perfectly valid use of the technology,” says Perry. “With this forward-deployment model that you’re discussing, it’s something we need to better understand to determine whether or not it’s actively being used to harm people.”

The worries of researchers and advocates need to be discussed because it looks like militaries worldwide have interests in robotic pursuits upon the battlefield. To date drones that provide remote operation capabilities for surveyal have made an impact. But being able to scout and patrol on the ground would be very useful and could potentially save lives helping to assess dangers that lie ahead. Spot and other similar quadrupeds could play an important part. Boston Dynamics pet project has stiff competition in a similar form from Ghost Robotics. Their robot is currently being tested by the US Air Force and could serve as a replacement for stationary surveillance cameras. If robots can provide roaming CCTV then they could prove to be very valuable in a dangerous combat zone.

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