Spot, the four-legged robot built by the American firm of Boston Dynamics, has appeared alongside soldiers during military exercises of the French army. The robot was apparently used for reconnaissance during a two-day training exercise, but the deployment raises questions about how and where the Boston Dynamics machines will be used in the future.
Photos of the exercises were shared on Twitter by the most important military school in France, the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr. It described the tests as “raising students’ awareness of tomorrow’s challenges,” including the “robotization of the battlefield”.
A report by the French newspaper Western France offers more details, saying Spot was one of the robots tested by students at the French École Militaire Interarmes (Combined Arms School), with the intention of assessing the usefulness of robots on future battlefields.
Michael Perry, Boston Dynamics vice president of business development The edge that the robot was supplied by a European distributor, Shark Robotics, and that the US company had not been notified of its use in advance. “We learn about it as you are,” says Perry. “We are not clear about the exact scope of this assignment.”
During the two-day deployment Western France says soldiers have performed a number of scenarios, including an offensive action that captures a crossroads, day and night defenses, and an urban combat test. Each scenario was performed with only humans and then humans and robots together to see what difference the machines made.
Sources cited in the article say the robots slowed operations but helped keep the troops safe. “During the urban combat phase, where we didn’t use robots, I died. But I didn’t die when we first let the robot do an exploration, ”says one soldier. They added that one issue was Spot’s battery life: the juice apparently ran out during an exercise and needed to be run.
It’s not clear what role Spot played (neither Shark Robotics nor the École de Saint-Cyr had responded to requests for comment at the time of writing), but Western France suggests it was used for reconnaissance. The 70lb Spot (31kg) is equipped with cameras and can be controlled remotely, with its four legs allowing it to navigate terrain that would challenge robots on wheels or tread. To date, it has been used to survey a number of remote environments, from construction sites to factories and underground mines.
In addition to Spot, there were also other machines that were tested by the French army OPTIO-X20, a remote-controlled vehicle with tank steps and automatic cannon built by the Estonian firm Milrem Robotics; BEYOND, a wheeled “robotic mule” made for carrying equipment built by the French state-owned military company Nexter; and Barakuda, a multipurpose wheeled drone that can provide soldiers with mobile coverage with attached armored plating.
Spot’s appearance on simulated battlefields raises questions about where the robot will be deployed in the future. Boston Dynamics has a long history of developing robots for the United States military, but as it moved into commercial markets, it distanced itself from military connections. Spot is still being tested by a number of US police forces, including the NYPD, but Boston Dynamics has always insisted that its machines will never be armed. “We unequivocally don’t want a customer to use the robot to harm people,” says Perry.
Spot’s requirements prohibit its use “to harm or intimidate any person or animal, as a weapon or to activate any weapon”, and it is possible to claim that a robot that helps soldiers explore buildings, technically does not harm or intimidate anyone. But if that reconnaissance is the prelude to military combat, it seems like a weak distinction.
Boston Dynamics, ”Perry said The edge that the company had a clear policy prohibiting suppliers or customers from arming the robot, but that the company is “still evaluating” whether to prohibit unarmed deployment by military customers.
“We think that insofar as the military is using robotics to keep people out of harm’s way, we think this is a perfectly valid use of the technology,” Perry said. “With this forward-thinking implementation model you are discussing, it is something we need to better understand to determine if it is being actively used to harm people.”
Despite concerns from researchers and lawyers, militaries around the world are increasingly pushing robots on the battlefieldRemotely operated drones have been the main deployment so far, but other use cases – including robots capable of scouting, surveying and patrolling – are also being tested. Robotic quadrupeds similar to Spot built by rival firm Ghost Robotics are currently being used tested by the US Air Force as a replacement for stationary surveillance cameras. If robots prove to be reliable as roaming CCTV, it will only be a matter of time before these capabilities are introduced in active combat zones.
Additional reporting by Aude White