Robotics in the battlefield: reducing the manpower burden

03 June 2021

The adoption of robotic technology has gathered significant pace over the past decade, impacting a vast range of sectors. In commercial technology – where innovations tend to occur and trickle down into industrial and military use – we’ve seen step changes in how robots and AI are being adopted. Many countries, for example,  are exploring driverless cars -  with some set to permit their use on roads later this year - and the first robotic home delivery vehicles launched in 2018, potentially revolutionising an entire industry.

While robotics and AI have been prevalent in the military domain for some time, we are now – just as in the commercial domain - entering an age of increased sophistication. So, what can we expect to see in the near future by way of technological adoption, aided by commercially driven R&D? And as their adoption is increased, to what extent are robots and AI open to manipulation from adversaries, and how can this threat be mitigated?

Robotic vehicles in the military domain

While robotic vehicles originated in the civilian domain, there are stark differences in the needs that they must fulfil in a military context. Robotic vehicles need to be highly automated and offer tactical mobility – a good example of this in practice is the use of both manned and unmanned ground platforms. These vehicles can offer logistical support on the battlefield and within urban environments, where they can operate as a light patrol platoon vehicle -  reducing the weight burden on troops by carrying stores, ammunition and casualties. They can also act autonomously for reconnaissance and detection missions, as well as to deliver items and, in certain cases, act as a decoy.

Due to operational requirements in the military, the vehicles need to be very agile and have a low signature, both visible in terms of profile and on the RF spectrum to prevent an enemy identifying and locating them.

So, what learnings can we bring from the commercial space to the battlefield to gain operational advantage and prevent enemy manipulation?

Autonomy and protection of data

Safety of autonomous vehicles is of paramount importance in the civilian space. For example, Tesla vehicles include several automated safety features such as a forward collision warning system and automatic breaking through a safety-first design. These types of collision avoidance technologies which help enhance safety in pedestrian environments could, in a military scenario, enable the remote use of autonomous vehicles without the potential of significant risk to soldiers operating nearby.

Autonomous military vehicles, however, are under constant threat of attack from hackers who could compromise the control of the vehicle as well as the data it holds and passes back through the command chain. In these cases, not only does the vehicle itself become a weapon but so does its onboard sensors, equipment and, if installed, remote weapon system.

This is where collaboration and an information exchange with the commercial sector could support the development of military domain-ready algorithms, AI technology and software. By looking to the commercial sector and building on its existing technology, the military domain could benefit from quicker and more efficient development of military-ready autonomous vehicles – providing operational advantage without compromising on safety. The UK’s recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy has a clear focus on cyber and electronic warfare, and this, in collaboration with the technology already in use in the commercial sector, could put the UK at the forefront of military autonomous vehicle development.


Beyond the vehicle itself there is also wider functionality to consider - for example, the fuel or power source of the vehicles. In the commercial sector the switch to electric vehicles is gathering pace, enabled by development of supporting infrastructure in the form of charging points. But, in the battlefield, how would electric or hybrid vehicles be recharged? How could their battery life be extended to meet operational needs? While further development is needed here, this is another opportunity to take inspiration from commercial technology to assess how energy from the vehicle could be redirected, for example through the kinetic energy that wheels generate, or solar power.

Other practical aspects of autonomous military vehicles also need to be evaluated, such as how will they be transported to the front line or to military bases across the globe. Could they fit in helicopters or aircraft, for added operational flexibility? Further exploration and collaboration is needed here, but solutions must be sought which are practical and that don’t add additional operational complexity that robots themselves are designed to reduce.

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