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More military robots…

October 16, 2009

A story in the Daily Mail shows two new military robot surveillance devices developed for the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence and Equipment Support (DES) group. The first is a throwable rolling robot equipped with multiple sensors, which can be chucked like a hand-grenade and then operated by remote-control. The second is another Micro-(Unmanned) Aerial Vehicle (Micro-UAV or MAV), a tiny helicopter which carries a surveillance camera. There have been rolling surveillance robots around for a while now (like the Rotundus GroundBot from Sweden), but this toughened version seems to be unique. The helicopter MAV doesn’t seem to be particularly new, indeed it looks at least from the pictures, pretty similar to the one controversially bought by Staffordshire police in Britain – which is made by MicroDrones of Germany.

The proliferation of such devices in both military and civil use is pretty much unchecked and unnoticed by legislators at present. Media coverage seems to be limited to ‘hey, cool!’ and yes, they are pretty cool as pieces of technology, but being used in useful humanitarian contexts (for example, rolling robots getting pictures of a partially-collapsed building or MAVs flying over a disaster zone) is a whole lot different from warfare, which is a whole lot different again from civilian law enforcement, commercial espionage or simple voyeuristic purposes. As surveillance gets increasingly small, mobile and independent, we have a whole new set of problems for privacy, and despite the fact that we warned regulators about these problems back in 2006 in our Report on the Surveillance Society, little government thought seems to have been devoted to these and other new technologies of surveillance.

The use of robots in war is of course something else I have become very interested in, especially as these flying and rolling sensor-platforms are increasingly independent in their operation and, like the US Predator drones employed in Afghanistan and Pakistan or the MAARS battlefield robot made by Qinetiq / Foster-Miller, become weapons platforms too. This is an urgent but still largely unnoticed international human rights and arms control issue, and one which the new International Committee for Robotic Arms Control (in which I am now getting involved), will hopefully play a leading role in addressing.

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