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Software engineer Nicholas Otero speaks with a colleague, not pictured, about features on a Centaur robot, right, at Endeavor Robotics in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, Aug. 28, 2018. VOA

The U.S. Army is looking for a few good robots. Not to fight — not yet, at least — but to help the men and women who do.

These robots aren’t taking up arms, but the companies making them have waged a different kind of battle. At stake is a contract worth almost half a billion dollars for 3,000 backpack-sized robots that can defuse bombs and scout enemy positions. Competition for the work has spilled over into Congress and federal court.


The project and others like it could someday help troops “look around the corner, over the next hillside and let the robot be in harm’s way and let the robot get shot,” said Paul Scharre, a military technology expert at the Center for a New American Security.

The big fight over small robots opens a window into the intersection of technology and national defense and shows how fear that China could surpass the U.S. drives even small tech startups to play geopolitics to outmaneuver rivals. It also raises questions about whether defense technology should be sourced solely to American companies to avoid the risk of tampering by foreign adversaries.


A U.S soldier patrols at night in Khost province, Afghanistan, seen through night vision equipment. VOA

Regardless of which companies prevail, the competition foreshadows a future in which robots, which are already familiar military tools, become even more common. The Army’s immediate plans alone envision a new fleet of 5,000 ground robots of varying sizes and levels of autonomy. The Marines, Navy and Air Force are making similar investments.

“My personal estimate is that robots will play a significant role in combat inside of a decade or a decade and a half,” the chief of the Army, Gen. Mark Milley, said in May at a Senate hearing where he appealed for more money to modernize the force.

Milley warned that adversaries like China and Russia “are investing heavily and very quickly” in the use of aerial, sea and ground robots. And now, he added, “we are doing the same.”

Such a shift will be a “huge game-changer for combat,” said Scharre, who credits Milley’s leadership for the push.

The promise of such big Pentagon investments in robotics has been a boon for U.S. defense contractors and technology startups. But the situation is murkier for firms with foreign ties.


The Defense Department is cautious about developing battlefield machines that make their own decisions. Pixabay

Concerns that popular commercial drones made by Chinese company DJI could be vulnerable to spying led the Army to ban their use by soldiers in 2017. And in August, the Pentagon published a report that said China is conducting espionage to acquire foreign military technologies — sometimes by using students or researchers as “procurement agents and intermediaries.” At a December defense expo in Egypt, some U.S. firms spotted what they viewed as Chinese knock-offs of their robots.

The China fears came to a head in a bitter competition between Israeli firm Roboteam and Massachusetts-based Endeavor Robotics over a series of major contracts to build the Army’s next generation of ground robots. Those machines will be designed to be smarter and easier to deploy than the remote-controlled rovers that have helped troops disable bombs for more than 15 years.

The biggest contract — worth $429 million — calls for mass producing 25-pound robots that are light, easily maneuverable and can be “carried by infantry for long distances without taxing the soldier,” said Bryan McVeigh, project manager for force projection at the Army’s research and contracting center in Warren, Michigan.

Other bulkier prototypes are tank-sized unmanned supply vehicles that have been tested in recent weeks in the rough and wintry terrain outside Fort Drum, New York.


The competition escalated into a legal fight when Roboteam accused Endeavor, a spinoff of iRobot. Flcikr

A third $100 million contract — won by Endeavor in late 2017 — is for a midsized reconnaissance and bomb-disabling robot nicknamed the Centaur.

The competition escalated into a legal fight when Roboteam accused Endeavor, a spinoff of iRobot, which makes Roomba vacuum cleaners, of dooming its prospects for those contracts by hiring a lobbying firm that spread false information to politicians about the Israeli firm’s Chinese investors.

A federal judge dismissed Roboteam’s lawsuit in April.

“They alleged that we had somehow defamed them,” said Endeavor CEO Sean Bielat, a former Marine who twice ran for Congress as a Republican. “What we had done was taken publicly available documents and presented them to members of Congress because we think there’s a reason to be concerned about Chinese influence on defense technologies.”

The lobbying firm, Boston-based Sachem Strategies, circulated a memo to members of the House Armed Services Committee. Taking up Endeavor’s cause was Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat — and, like Bielat, a Marine veteran — who wrote a letter to a top military official in December 2016 urging the Army to “examine the evidence of Chinese influence” before awarding the robot contracts.


The mock killer robot was displayed in London in April 2013 during the launching of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which calls for the ban of lethal robot weapons that would be able to select and attack targets without any human intervention. (VOA)

Six other lawmakers later raised similar concerns.

Roboteam CEO Elad Levy declined to comment on the dispute but said the firm is still “working very closely with U.S. forces,” including the Air Force, and other countries. But it’s no longer in the running for the lucrative Army opportunities.

Endeavor is. Looking something like a miniature forklift on tank treads, its prototype called the Scorpion has been zipping around a test track behind an office park in a Boston suburb.

The only other finalist is just 20 miles away at the former Massachusetts headquarters of Foster-Miller, now a part of British defense contractor Qinetiq. The company did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The contract is expected to be awarded in early 2019.

Both Endeavor and Qinetiq have strong track records with the U.S. military, having supplied it with its earlier generation of ground robots such as Endeavor’s Packbot and Qinetiq’s Talon and Dragon Runner.

After hiding the Scorpion behind a shroud at a recent Army conference, Bielat and engineers at Endeavor showed it for the first time publicly to The Associated Press in November. Using a touchscreen controller that taps into the machine’s multiple cameras, an engineer navigated it through tunnels, over a playground-like structure and through an icy pool of water, and used its grabber to pick up objects.


U.S. Army Soldier in Afghanistan. Flickr

It’s a smaller version of its predecessor, the Packbot, which was first used by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2002 and later became one of soldiers’ essential tools for safely disabling improvised explosives in Iraq. Bielat said the newer Scorpion and Centaur robots are designed to be easier for the average soldier to use quickly without advanced technical training.

“Their primary job is to be a rifle squad member,” Bielat said. “They don’t have time to mess with the robot. They’re going to demand greater levels of autonomy.”

It will be a while, however, before any of these robots become fully autonomous. The Defense Department is cautious about developing battlefield machines that make their own decisions. That sets the U.S. apart from efforts by China and Russia to design artificially intelligent warfighting arsenals.

Also Read: The Secrets Of The North Korean Hacker Army

A November report from the Congressional Research Service said that despite the Pentagon’s “insistence” that a human must always be in the loop, the military could soon feel compelled to develop fully autonomous systems if rivals do the same. Or, as with drones, humans will still pull the trigger, but a far-away robot will lob the bombs.

Said P.W. Singer, a strategist for the New America Foundation think tank: “China has showed off armed ones. Russia has showed them off. It’s coming.” (VOA)


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Photo by Pixabay

Indian astronomers have found an active galaxy in a very bright state with 10 times more X-ray emission than normal

Indian astronomers have found an active galaxy in a very bright state with 10 times more X-ray emission than normal, equivalent to more than 10 trillion of the sun, and located five billion light years away that could help probe how particles behave under intense gravity and acceleration to the speed of light.

It could help study the role of strong gravity and acceleration of matter in the formation, interaction and evolution of galaxies in the early universe.

Every galaxy in the universe is believed to host a supermassive black hole at its centre. In some galaxies, the black hole is actively devouring a large amount of material and shooting a jet of plasma almost at the speed of light towards us. These are called blazars.

OJ 287 belongs to a class of blazars known as BL Lacertae objects which show very rapid and large amplitude flux variations but barely discernible emission line features.

This class of sources emit in the whole electromagnetic spectrum, a rather uncommon phenomenon which requires extreme physical conditions. Hence, a study of such sources tells us about the behaviour of matter in an extreme gravitational field where it is difficult for light to escape from the vicinity of the black hole.

Astronomers at Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences, an autonomous institute of the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, have been monitoring one such black hole system named 'OJ 287' since 2015. This source shows a repeated optical brightness enhancement almost every 12 years.

"The repeated optical enhancement makes OJ 287 very intriguing as this class of sources does not show any repeating features in flux variations. The repeated optical enhancement made the researchers believe that the system hosts a binary black hole," said a release from the Ministry of Science and Technology.

In 2020, the source was very bright at optical and X-ray bands with X-ray flux more than 10 times the normal (non-active phase) flux. This flare was very different as it was not expected in models proposed for this source and thus, indicated a more complex system and physical conditions.

Investigating the extreme brightness shown by OJ 287 at optical and X-ray bands, astronomers led by Pankaj Kushwaha and Alok C. Gupta reported the source in a completely new spectral state.

The team argued that this change of state holds clues to the researcher's quest to understand how matter behaves in very strong gravity and how it accelerates the particle to almost the speed of light -- a feat that is out of the scope of even the most advanced CERN accelerator.

The research published in 'The Astrophysical Journal' tracked the details of changes in optical to the X-ray emission spectrum of the source with time from 2017 to 2020 -- after the second brightest X-ray flare of the source. It revealed how the source gradually started to change its spectral behaviour from mid-2018 to the new spectral state in 2020.

The study included data recorded by the ground-based facility operated by Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, operated Mount Abu observing facility in near infra-red bands and the space-based NASA's satellites -- the Niels Gherel Swift satellite at optical, UV and X-rays with gamma ray data from the Fermi satellite, the release added. (IANS/JB)

Keywords: Science, NASA, Satellites, Black Hole, Gravity, India


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