Weapon Manufacturers Are Making Robots That Deploy Other Robots

There's a burgeoning market for robots that deploy robots.

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Oct 18 2018, 2:00pm

An Oregon company has developed a self-contained combination housing and launcher for tiny, GPS-guided surveillance drones. The housing can attach to almost any vehicle, including unmanned ground vehicles.

Put them together, and you've built a robot that can deploy robots. Kelsey Atherton of c4isrnet has called it "the Inception of drones," a reference to Christopher Nolan's 2010 science-fiction film about artificial worlds inside of artificial worlds.

The Black Hornet Vehicle Reconnaissance System, a product of FLIR Systems based in Wilsonville, Oregon, "equips armored or mechanized vehicles with an immediate, organic, and self-contained surveillance and reconnaissance system," according to the company.

The roughly shoe-box-size device includes slots for four Black Hornet helicopter drones, each the size of a songbird, plus an electrical charger for each bot. On command, a slot opens, a drone pops out and takes flight, and the slot closes.

The camera-equipped Black Hornet can follow pre-programmed GPS coordinates or follow its own internal map. Flying up to 21 miles per hour over a distance of 1.2 miles, "it can fly from outdoors into buildings or caves, and help assess a situation before putting personnel in harm’s way," FLIR explains on its website.

Stick a Black Hornet VRS on top of, say, a robotic reconnaissance vehicle or a remote controlled-tank, and you've created an unmanned scout that can launch its own, smaller unmanned scouts to extend its field of view. "A game-changing and lifesaving capability," according to FLIR.

There's a burgeoning market for robots that deploy robots. In 2017 Singaporean company Otsaw Digital introduced the O-R3, a wheeled outdoor security robot that carries its own quadcopter surveillance drone. The US Air Force is developing a missile-carrying flying robot that's compatible with any standard warplane, potentially including armed drones. Drones launching drones launching missiles.

Small size is obviously key to these robot-launched robots. But the same miniaturization that could allow bots to deploy bots in wartime or during some routine security patrol could give terrorists the perfect tool for mass mayhem, according to Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

"I estimate, for example, that roughly one million lethal weapons can be carried in a single container truck or cargo aircraft, perhaps with only two or three human operators rather than two or three million," Russell told me by email.

"Such weapons would be able to hunt for and eliminate humans in towns and cities, even inside buildings. They would be cheap, effective, unattributable, and easily proliferated once the major powers initiate mass production and the weapons become available on the international arms market," Russell said.

Now imagine if a million-robot terror attack didn't need any human operators at all, rather only a self-driving cargo truck to transport them on their deadly mission.