Military Robots on the Horizon

LÄSNA, Estonia — In late June, a robot-like vehicle known as the THeMIS 4.5 was put to the test in Estonia’s dense vegetation. The vehicle, owned by Milrem Robotics, a company recently acquired by the United Arab Emirates’ Edge Group, demonstrated its ability to navigate challenging terrain with minimal human intervention. Estonia, with its population of just 1.3 million, has emerged as an innovation hub for unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) technology in recent years, attracting interest from military officials around the world.

Countries like Estonia are gradually integrating ground robots into their military structures, either as a complement or a replacement for existing capabilities. To showcase the capabilities of various UGVs, the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) organized a two-day trial in June, inviting vendors to participate. The objective was for the vehicles to complete three daily scenarios, ranging from easy to challenging, within a 20-minute time slot, with minimal human intervention or in autonomous mode. Military officials from over 20 countries, mostly from Europe, observed the demonstrations.

While the development of UGVs has been a slow process, interest in the technology remains high. Markus Otsus, project coordinator at the Estonian Military Academy, expressed optimism about the field’s growth, noting that the trial attracted more participants than expected, with 11 platforms present, including both established players and startups. However, the majority of the UGVs showcased were still in the prototype stage, highlighting the slower progress in the terrestrial domain compared to aerial drones.

One of the main challenges faced by UGVs is perception and localization. Most vehicles currently rely on light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors to identify and avoid obstacles by creating a live 3D map of their surroundings using laser beams. However, LIDAR technology has limitations in adverse weather conditions such as rain, snow, or fog, and can be disrupted by laser-spoofing techniques. Dust and dense vegetation also pose challenges, as observed during the trials.

Communication reliability is another crucial aspect for UGVs in operational scenarios. If a vehicle loses connection or sends an error signal, its usability is limited. While most systems performed well on open roads, forested areas presented more complex challenges. GPS signal strength was weaker in wooded settings, affecting navigation even with pre-loaded waypoints.

Although full autonomy in robotic combat is still a distant goal, progress is being made. Several armies are incorporating UGVs into combat training, focusing on tasks such as mine-clearing, explosive ordnance disposal, and evacuation. The current trend leans toward employing UGVs in logistics and surveillance roles, with reconnaissance missions being a priority for some countries.

While armed UGVs are not yet widely adopted, there is interest in weaponized platforms. Rheinmetall Canada, a key player in the German company’s ground robot business, confirmed receiving inquiries from European countries regarding weaponized UGVs. However, the integration of UGVs into national fighting forces on a larger scale remains uncertain. Representatives at the trials estimated that by 2040, the technology may be ready for widespread deployment, but safety testing, procedure standardization, and operational experience are necessary prerequisites.

For smaller nations like Estonia, acquiring UGVs in large quantities for robot battles is not currently feasible. However, countries with specialized infantry units, larger armed forces, and extensive borders may require hundreds of UGVs to make a significant impact. The UGV industry is slowly gaining momentum, and the future holds promise for its widespread adoption.

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