Russia’s mine-clearing robot has its safety limitations
Robots are clearing paths for explosives. This simple, but crucial, military task is one of many uses for ground robotics. This is vital for the safe movement people and vehicles. It seems that the mine clearing is only taking place in areas Russia considers safe. This highlights the limitations of remote piloting robots in wars.
The Uran-6 is the key machine, a remotely piloted tracked robotic used for demining. Russian forces used Uran-6 to clear roadside explosives in Syria HTML1. A Russian newspaper Izvestia shared a video showing an Uran-6 driving along a dirt road outside Mariupol, occupied Ukraine. The machine is equipped with a heavy cylinder in its front that sets off explosions when it passes over landmines.
Mariupol was a Ukrainian city that witnessed brutal fighting for more than two months. It was isolated from other Ukrainian forces while gradually besieged and cleared of defenders by Russian forces, all with civilians still caught in the crossfire. The last Ukrainian forces in the city surrendered to Russia on May 17, and other released videos have shown Uran-6s robots deployed to clear the fortified beaches of Mariupol’s Azov coast.
“Russian media is showing Uran-6 work in order to show that the country’s army is using modern, sophisticated technology,” said Samuel Bendett (an analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis) and adjunct senior fellow at The Center for New American Security.
However, these videos, which were filmed in Russia and released by them, also highlight the obvious limitations of the tech.
” We see very limited Uran-6 UGV usage, as the operator must be within a few hundred feet of the vehicle. Therefore, Uran-6 is only used when Russia or Russia-allied forces have secured an area and there is no threat from Ukrainian attacks,” states Bendett.
Mining roads by robot sweep can provide some safety and allow forces to move through them safely. However, initial sweeps may miss well-hidden and inconveniently placed explosives. It can take many years or even decades to cleave an entire area of explosives after combat. It is likely that large areas of Ukraine, particularly in the Russian-held Donbas area of Eastern Ukraine, will still require extensive clearing.
Prior to Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine across three fronts, Ukraine had, since 2014, waged a war to regain control of self-declared separatist republics in the Donbas. Both sides launched artillery and bombs across static defensive lines while the conflict was being monitored by foreign observers who were monitoring ceasefire violations. Some of the former front lines are now firmly in Russian-controlled territory, meaning any explosives fired by either side and not safely cleared pose an enduring risk to Russian forces.
” As the Russian forces continue to advance across Ukraine, it’s probable that the MOD [Ministry of Defense] would be showing additional Uran-6 use in its promo videos.” says Bendett. “At the exact same time, there are plenty of evidence to suggest that the majority of demining is done by human sappers. They must perform ‘old school’ on foot identification and destruction mines and other [unexploded ordnance].”
Mine-clearing is extensive and labor-intensive work. Even though robots like Uran-6 can do the job, it is still human who directs and routes it to where it needs. This is an essential task to ensure safe operation within one’s control. However, uncleared areas can prevent soldiers from receiving ammunition or other supplies after an advance.
The short distance between the human operator (and mine-clearing robot) means that the human operator can be safely away from any detonated groundmines, but the operator is still vulnerable to attack by hostile forces. As the war in Ukraine turns into a battle fought by artillery and the effects on attrition, the area in which Uran-6 is safe to operate decreases. While soldiers may be willing to risk a robot to protect themselves from rockets and artillery, trained operators of the system are less likely to be in danger.
” So, despite Russian MOD’s talk about using a growing number robotic systems to protect humans lives and make missions more efficient – its main purpose for military autonomy and AI- it will take awhile before this technology becomes available in large enough numbers to eliminate the dangerous ground work of the sapper,” says Bendett.