Military Robots: Competition for the Future

By Artur Kovalivsky.  

The indisputable fact is that we cannot imagine the future warfare without application of military robots. He who has a greater advantage in technology and even now takes part in the technological race in robotics, will win. 

 

Let’s take a look at products Russia can offer in this field: does Russia have any technological superiority over its competitors or does it have to catch up?  


 

What is a Military Robot? 

A military robot is an automatic device intended for military applications. It allows to minimize the human part in combat operations and, therefore, to prevent personnel casualties. 

Most of modern robots are remotely controlled devices, while some projects are being intensified to achieve full automation of robots by developing in them artificial intelligence, in whole or in part. 

History of Development 

The first “military robot” was an aerial vehicle dubbed the Kettering Bug, which became the ancestor of today’s cruise missiles. It was developed by Dayton-Wright in 1917 on request of the U.S. Army. During World War II, Nazi Germany used the Goliath self-propelled mines. In the USSR, the T-26 remotely-controlled teletanks developed in the 1930s became the first robots.  

The Cold War era marked a new phase in the development of military robots with a large-scale implementation of reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) such as the AQM-34 aerial vehicle developed by Ryan Aeronautical (USA), or the La-17R unmanned reconnaissance aircraft developed by S. Lavochkin aircraft design bureau (USSR). 

At the beginning of the Cold War, certain trends in robotics development were singled out: aerial, land-based, ground, special-purpose (reconnaissance) robots. 

Airborne Military Robots  

Airborne military robots are attack UAVs designed as aerial vehicles able to carry combat load and destroy ground, air and surface targets. 

The most widespread UAVs of this class are the U.S. MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper that are often used by the U.S. Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Performance 

Parameter 
MQ-9 Reaper 
MQ-1 Predator 
Weight, kg: Empty / Max  
2,223 / 4,760  512 / 1,020 
Speed, km/h: 
Max speed 
Cruise speed 
 
482  

about 300 

217  

110–130 

Max flight range, km 
5,800  740 
Full-load endurance 
about 14 h  about 20 h 
Max endurance 
up to 28–30 h  up to 40 h 
Service ceiling 
up to 15 km  up to 8 km 
Weapons: 
  • 4 × AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missile  
  • 2 × Mark 82 log-drag bombs with laser guidance or GPS-guidance 
  • Optional: AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missiles  
  • 2 × AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missile  
  • 4 × AIM-92 Stinger air-to-air missile  
  • 6 × Griffin-class air-to-ground missile 

 

Starting in 2021, these UAVs will be replaced with the MQ-25 Stingray attack and reconnaissance UAV (formerly known as X-47B). Recently, the U.S. Navy Command has decided to reclassify this UAV into a reconnaissance-type aerial vehicle by removing the option to carry weapons. 

MQ-25 Stingray performance: 

  • Empty UAV weight – 1,740 kg 
  • Max speed – 1,035 km/h 
  • Range – 2,778+ km 
  • Service ceiling – 12+ km  
  • Weapons – currently unavailable  

Bell Helicopter has recently demonstrated its V-247 Vigilant project to develop an attack tiltrotor unmanned aerial vehicle for the U.S. Marine Corps. This UAV is expected to enter service in 2026. The U.S. Marine Corps is going to replace all available MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs with the V-247 Vigilant attack tiltrotor UAV intended for reconnaissance and combat missions. For this purpose, this UAV will be equipped with three compartments located under the fuselage and outer wing panels. The tiltrotor UAV is expected to be armed with the AFM-114 Hellfire missiles. 

UAVs in Russia 

For the time being, Russia does not have any attack UAV, but a few systems are currently under development such as the Dozor-600 UAV for reconnaissance and attack applications and the attack UAV based on the closed project of the heavy attack UAV “Skat” being developed by MiG and Klimov experimental design bureaus.  

As both UAVs are prototypes, performance data listed below are not final. 

Performance 

Parameter 
Dozor-600 
Skat 
Max weight, kg 
720 kg  20,000 kg 
Speed, km: 
Max speed 
Cruise speed 
 

210  

120–150 

 

850 

— 

Flight range, km 
3,700 (operational)  4,000 (max) 
Endurance, h 
24  N/A  
Service ceiling, km 
7.5  15 
Weapons 

N/A 

  • 2 ×Kh-31А air-to-surface missile 
  • 2 × Kh-31Panti-radiation missile 
  • 2 ×KAB-250 guided air bombs (250 kg) 
  • 2 × KAB-500 guided air bombs (500 kg) 

Ground Military Robots 

Ground robots may be subdivided into engineer, combat, logistic support, and reconnaissance robots. 

Such robots may be designed as miniature toy-like scouts or as heavy combat platforms with fire power comparable to light armored vehicles. Most of modern ground robots are designed as multirole platforms that support various task-oriented attachment modules.  

All ground robots are remotely controlled while some models may feature artificial intelligence components, but no army in the world can afford a large-scale implementation of such AI solutions due to high costs, complexity, and low usability. 

Robots are battery-powered devices; that is why the endurance of ground robots is basically not greater than 20 hours and they are mostly used for protection of critical facilities, special operations, reconnaissance, and engineer tasks. 

The world’s leader in this field is Foster-Miller, a U.S. company with their TALON robot, the most widespread solution (with production output over 3,000 robots). The TALON robot has managed to clear dozens of thousands of explosive devices in Afghanistan.  

One of the most advanced high-tech companies specializing in military robotics is Boston Dynamics with their famous four-legged BigDog robot; however, the company's products are not widely-spread in armed forces while U.S. Army has eventually refused to use the BigDog cargo handling robot. 

Russia may be proud of its MRK platform (Mobile Robotic Complex), plus a heavier Platform-M version and Argo robotic complex. The Platform-M system is designed as a tracked modular-type platform, i.e. it supports installation of a reconnaissance module or a combat module. The Argo robotic complex is actually similar to the Platform-M system, but it features a wheeled platform. Its main task is terrain reconnaissance or patrol as well as destruction of enemy non-armored or light armored vehicles.  

In comparison with their foreign equivalents, the distinctive feature of both platforms is an unprecedented number of weapons: these robots may carry a machine gun together with four anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and may be equipped with a complete set of reconnaissance equipment that allows to use them as a full-featured reconnaissance and combat support unit. 

The Uran-9 robotic complex is supposed to be the most advanced Russian military robot armed with the 2A72 30-mm automatic cannon coupled with the 7.62-mm machine gun, plus the М120 Ataka anti-tank guided missiles. Equipped with such weapons, the Uran-9 robot is able to take part in a full-scale battle and successfully hit the enemy’s combat vehicles within the range up to 8 km. In addition to the combat module, the Uran-9 robot is also equipped with a laser guidance system. The Russian Army shall receive 20 robots of this type before the end of 2016. 

Special-Purpose Reconnaissance Robots 

As a rule, such robots are designed as miniature reconnaissance units for intelligence data acquisition, target designation and surveillance for aerial or ground applications.  

The U.S. Recon Scout is the most widespread ground robot in this category. With its weight equal to 1.3 kg, it is fitted with an IR-camera and used by special forces during counter-terrorist operations and other tasks, which require terrain reconnaissance along with covert infiltration into the enemy facility. The First Look 110 robot is designed for similar tasks, but unlike the Recon Scout robot, it has a bit larger sizes and better terrain crossing capacity. 

The RQ-16 T-Hawk robot developed by Honeywell is supposed to be a reconnaissance robot for more specific tasks. It is designed as an unmanned helicopter based on the coaxial rotor configuration. This robot was used by the U.S. Army special forces for terrain reconnaissance in Afghanistan as well as for aerial survey of destruction at Fukushima NPP in April 2011. 

For now, the RQ-16 T-Hawk is most widespread drone of this type with production output of 400 pcs.  

Any information about the use of similar robots in Russia is mainly classified. For the time being, it is known that such robots are not widely used in our country; only some of them are used, mostly for FSB's needs.  

Status of Military Robots in Russia and Future Development 

As a whole, we may conclude that some trends in military robotics in Russia have reached a considerably high level, while other directions demonstrate a certain lack in technology. 

It is safe to say that Russia is one of the world’s leaders in development of heavy combat ground robots. For now, with its combat capabilities, the Uran-9 robot surpasses most of foreign equivalents and is leading in the amount of onboard weapons. Intense efforts are being made to develop unmanned modifications of heavy armored vehicles based on the Armata platform (robotic versions of the Т-14 tank and T-15 infantry combat vehicle).  

As for UAVs, Russia is facing some technological gap. So far, our country has not developed an attack UAV, while the U.S. MQ-1 Predator UAV made its first flight as early as 2002. However, the Dozor-600 attack UAVs being under development and a more promising Skat UAV developed as a flying wing airplane with the use of stealth technology to reduce radar signature may help eliminate this gap. 

In the field of development of miniature reconnaissance units, Russia does not have any systems able to meet completion; that is why a very large scope of works needs to be done in this sector; otherwise the gap will become critical.  

We should note that in recent years the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation has paid close attention to robotics at an unprecedented level since the disintegration of the USSR. 

The concept of development and combat employment of robotic complexes for the period until 2025 has been accepted. According to this concept, the rate of robots in the overall structure of arms and military equipment of the Russian Army shall reach 30%.  

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