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Robots, essential links on the 21st century battlefielde century

In the run-up to Robotics Day and the second edition of the CoHoMa (human-machine collaboration) challenge, which demonstrate the French Army's ambitions in this area, we take a closer look at this rapidly expanding field, in which France is also exploring the ethical issues involved.

A CENTURY OF RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

As early as the First World War, various armies, including the French, were seeking to develop automated combat systems. During the Second World War, the German Goliath (based on a prototype seized from a French engineer in 1940) marked an important step: this kamikaze tracked wire-guided vehicle carried explosive charges and exploded with them once it had reached its target, a tank or fortified stronghold.

However, it was at the beginning of this century that military robotics entered its modern era, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, through one of its essential functions: mine clearance. Deminers were the forerunners of the use of ground robots in operations, which can dig into the ground, take images and detect explosives. "In Afghanistan, IED techniques have become increasingly important. improvised explosive devicesThe weapons used by the enemy were of a very high standard," explains Captain Florent, a demining trainer at the Engineering School in Paris. a report on robotics produced by the Journal de la Défense (JDEF).

At the same time, it's in France itself that an army engineering unit is proving itself as a pioneer in robotics: the Paris fire brigade. Colossus, an extinguishing and exploration robot, saw its first example enter service in 2017. It is used when there is a risk of collapse, landslides or extreme heat. "Today, this robot is indispensable to the way we intervene," says Warrant Officer Benoît, head of the Issy-les-Moulineaux emergency service, in the same report. "It would be hard to go back to the way things were. On average, Colossus carries out 65 rescue operations a year. Equipped with sensors that "see" 360 degrees day and night, and detect gases and toxic products, it can also transport victims and equipment, with a carrying capacity of more than 200 kilos, and can be deployed more quickly in the event of a disaster.

AERIAL DRONES, LAND AND UNDERWATER ROBOTS

At the French Armaments Procurement Agency (DGA), the race for robotic innovation is ongoing, particularly in the field of mine clearance. "As explosive devices continue to diversify, we need to use a wide range of sensors to maximise the chances of detecting them", explains Delphine, Chief Armaments Engineer and architect of future land combat systems at the DGA, in the JDEF report. Some sensors are dedicated to detecting electronics, while others detect changes in the ground... "We're even trying to merge information from different sensors", she adds.

This is the case of RSM (robotic sensitive minesweeper(an intelligent mine-clearing robot) from Capacités, a company based in Nantes and supported by the French Defence Innovation Agency (AID). This low-magnetic-signature anti-personnel mine detection robot, which has a dual military use (during a conflict) and a civilian use (to restore safe land to local populations), combines artificial intelligence and robotics to help deminers make decisions remotely. In the French Navy, the SLAM-F, the mine countermeasures system of the future, should be delivered in 2024 for the first production vehicles.

Robots enable us to see, listen, feel and act further afield. "We're interested in them for the infantry, for example to investigate buildings and see if there are any enemies or traps," explains Delphine, chief weapons engineer, but also "for reconnaissance, surveillance, refuelling and combat support". "What really seems interesting is being able to exploit the complementary capabilities of man and machine. Robotics should thus make it possible to improve the balance of power in urban combat, a terrain historically unfavourable to the military.

In cities, as in mine clearance, the major challenge is that robots are more at ease in homogeneous environments such as air or water, but less so on land. "We have an extremely diverse environment, scenes that are sometimes changing, very dynamic, areas that are often compartmentalised, delimited by natural or artificial obstacles... These characteristics have a very strong impact on mobility, communication, satellite signal reception for geolocation, and image processing. This is why autonomous decision-making is such an important parameter in robotics. "It allows the operator to avoid having to focus on the remote operation of a robot, it also promotes discretion over the air, and also to be much more fluid in reacting to environmental hazards. Ideally, we'd even like to go as far as natural language interaction, like saying to the robot: "Go and stand on the hill and move stealthily".

Robots can also be used as tactical pawns: several ground and air robots used at the same time, coordinating their systems. This is collaborative combat, "the other game changer that we are identifying for tomorrow's combat", according to Chief Weapons Engineer Delphine. "The idea is to exploit the networking of all the platforms on the battlefield and optimise their collaboration to speed up the tempo of the manoeuvre." The aim is to understand, decide and act faster than the adversary on the ground.

VULCAIN PROJECT, BATTLE LAB EARTH AND ROBOTICS EXPLORATORY SECTION

In robotics, "the field of possibilities is so vast that we had to put in place an approach, a method", explains Lieutenant-Colonel David, the corresponding robotics staff officer at the French Army Staff (EMAT). Hence the Vulcain project, which EMAT has been supporting since 2021. The idea is "to have operational units that use and master the use of automated systems in tomorrow's combat by 2040", adds the colonel.

"Vulcain is not a programme, but an exploratory approach that should inspire future programmes," explains Army General Pierre Schill, Chief of Staff of the French Army. "It relies on a robotics community that brings together a wide range of players: the French army, the Directorate General of Armaments, the Defence Innovation Agency, major manufacturers, small and medium-sized enterprises and academics".

This research and development component is accompanied by extensive field trials. The aim is to have "robotic solutions integrated into combat units within 4 to 5 years for the first stages", explained in 2022 colonel Sébastien, director of the Battle Lab Terre, created in 2019 on the Satory plateau, and responsible for technical and operational innovation. The aim is even "to have robotic systems that are part of the operational units".

The Robotics Exploratory Section, created in the summer of 2021, currently comprises 17 soldiers. Its aim is to have operational soldiers specialising in the use of robots, rather than just experimenters. "The use of drones and robots is changing the way we think about manoeuvres," Lieutenant Mamadou, head of the section, tells JDEF. "Missions that used to take an hour are now carried out in ten minutes, since the use of drones in advance of the intelligence phase means we can avoid certain missions and anticipate the future."

The same concern for operational realism governs the CoHoMa (man-machine collaboration) challenge, organised by the French Army, the second edition of which will take place from 11 May to 7 June, just after Robotics Day (10 May at the Beynes camp in the Yvelines). For Colonel David Schuster, robotics officer at EMAT, the CoHoMa challenge is "a real operational robotics challenge open to the civil-military world".

Robotics raises major ethical and legal issues. To address these issues, in 2020 the French Ministry of Defence set up a unique body, the first Defence Ethics Committee, which approved France's decision to abandon SALA (automated lethal weapon systems) in favour of SALIA (lethal weapon systems with integrated autonomy). This choice underlines the importance of human intervention in assessing the situation and in the decision-making process. In short, rather than putting robots in the place of humans, we need to put them with humans. Although France has abandoned the use of SALA, it is continuing to study them in order to protect itself against those used by potential enemies.