Meet the bots training alongside the Belgian Army
A team of robots advanced through a mock battleground at an army base in the forest interior of Belgium on June 2. These robots, accompanied by uniformed soldiers, scouted buildings and took defensive positions behind packed soil bulwarks. Some even donned camo netting to hide their bulky bodies from casual viewing. An armed ground robot was hidden in a grove of trees with its turret pointing to protect the advance. This fourth demonstration of robots by the Belgian Army was part of the European IMUGS project.
The exercise centered on a vehicle called THeMIS, made by Estonia’s Milrem Robotics, the company that was the lead coordinator for the 32.6 million euro (roughly $35 million) project. Alongside Estonia’s Milrem, companies in France, Finland, Spain, Germany, Latvia, and Belgium contributed to the project, with the goal of developing a “modular and scalable architecture” that could be easily modified for use alongside human-carrying vehicles. The exercise allowed soldiers to try out multiple robots simultaneously.
The project allows robot-making companies as well as robot-using militaries, to consider how these tools might work together with existing vehicles. The project aims to develop both ground and air vehicles, control systems, a way to communicate with humans and the vehicles, sensors to see the world and share it in a useful manner, space for weapons and computer software that allows for smooth and efficient operation by algorithm.
These efforts are crucial to ensuring that any robots potentially being fielded can be controlled by humans. When the project was launched in December 2020, Milrem announced that “The system to be developed will be under meaningful human control.”
THeMIS was the core of the project. It is a versatile platform that can transport a variety of payloads and has been established. The basic version of the vehicle is about the same length as a small golf cart but shorter and wider. It can be remotely controlled a mile away from a human operator, and on a diesel-electric engine it can drive for up to 15 hours. As a versatile wagon, it can carry gear, like backpacks, fuel, or extra rations, while keeping up with a marching army or driving ahead at just over 12 mph.
The THeMIS is a critical platform for militaries to explore battlefield robotics using mobile cargo haulers. It can also carry other sensors, making it a valuable platform. A range of turrets can be mounted on it, so the THeMIS can host cameras, rangefinders, and weapons from machine guns to anti-tank missiles like the Javelin to loitering munitions. These weapons can be remotely controlled, but targeting algorithms can help in locating and tracking people or vehicles before a human operator presses a trigger.
The THeMIS can support sensors to monitor the battlefield. One such system was demonstrated in the exercise held in Belgium on June 2. THeMIS Observe, as the tower-deploying variant was called, features a camera, a radar, an acoustic sensor to detect gunfire, as well as a “Rapid Obscuring System” made by Rheinmetall dubbed ROSY. This device can blast smoke, heat and light in seconds, making it difficult for optical, laser, and infrared sensors to detect vehicles abruptly hidden.
By placing all these sensors on a tower that can be deployed on a battlefield robot, soldiers can gain more information than was previously available at their level. The bot can follow a vehicle or follow waypoints on a map to make managing a robot easier. This makes it easier to survive in combat. The vehicle can avoid collisions by avoiding obstacles and detecting them.
Alongside the THeMIS robots, there were at least five ground robots with the logo of dotOcean. This autonomous control company focuses on retrofitting boats with new control systems. Their contribution to the modular ground robot project is developing an algorithm that lets a fleet of networked robots collaborate together.
In a video of the exercise, Summit-XL robots from Spain’s Robotnik company also appear. These machines can be remotely controlled or operated autonomously. They use lasers and other sensors for scanning and surveying the surrounding terrain.
The exercise’s robots support soldiers by scanning battlefields in ways that human eyes cannot. As shown on video, the exercise supported a future in which smaller robots could find new routes and are less likely to be lost. Larger machines could also take up advance positions and allow a remote human operator to direct cover fire while soldiers advance if necessary. It’s a exploration and vision of combat where soldiers still do the majority of the fighting but robots can provide new information and new ways of attacking and advancing.
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I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.