The Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR) developed by Vecna Technologies in collaboration with the U.S. Army’s Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Centre (TATRC) is no teddy bear.
The Economist (10 March 2011) says this it is “a highly agile and powerful mobile robot capable of lifting and carrying a combat casualty from a hazardous area across uneven terrain.” And when BEAR is not saving wounded soldiers on the battlefield, it can perform “difficult and repetitive tasks, such as loading and unloading ammunition.”
The BEAR is a tracked vehicle that can travel up to 12 mph and has 2 hydraulic arms for lifting and carrying. It is controlled with a set of wireless video cameras and joystick control either embedded on the grip of a rifle or with a special glove that can sense the wearer’s movements.
This is great concept and I imagine this will be enhanced over time especially with the advances in telemedicine, so that at some point we will see the BEAR or its progeny actually performing battlefield medicine.
One thing, however, in my opinion, the bear face on this robot undermines the seriousness of mission that it performs and it should be changed to look like a medic, it’s primary function.
A critical component of User-centric Enterprise Architecture is designing technology solutions to meet end-user requirements, and this includes making the man-machine interface simple and user-friendly. Often, this is referred to as ergonomics, defined as “the applied science of equipment design intended to maximize productivity by reducing operator fatigue, safety and discomfort. “ (www.spyderco.com/edge-u-cation/glossary.php)
According to Federal Computer Week, 4 August 2008, “Air Force researchers aim to help pilots and others operate increasingly complex aircraft and mission support systems.”
Unfortunately, all too often, the man-machine interface is not dealt with up front. “Traditionally, the machine and the technology are designed first and then the pilot has to deal with what’s left over, usually through training,” says Maris Vikmanis of the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Not designing in ergonomics from the get-go is a failure to consider the human capital perspective of enterprise architecture and will result in technology solutions that are sub-optimal to the end users and to the performance of the mission.
Dan Goodard, chief of the directorate’s Warfighter Interface Division, states, “There’s now so much reconnaissance data flowing down into the AOC (Air Operations Center) that it’s information overload. You need a much better human-machine interface to be able to get actionable information out of this very quickly.”
One example of enhancing man-machine interface is “deciding the best interface for people to use with onscreen data. A regular mouse turns out not to be so good for this; it would be better if someone could actually reach into the data to interact with it, which means devising more tangible interfaces.” (Remember the movie Minority Report…) I do not know if this type of 3-D data interface even has a name yet, but I would call it something like virtual data manipulation (VDM).
Another example goes beyond the senses of sight and touch to that of hearing. “Sound perception can play an equally important role in combat scenarios. On the battlefield, people often pick up aural cues about what’s happening before they see it. Developing technology that can take advantage of that is the goal of Battlespace Acoustics Branch of the Warfighter Interface Division.”
We’ve got to change from the “build it and they will come” mindset of the failed dot.com era to a more User-centric EA approach that demands that we design IT with the end-user in mind.
As Goodard summed up, “there’s been a lack of awareness about the importance of the man-machine interface in the early designs of weapons systems.” It’s certainly time to change that and not only for military and law enforcement systems, but for IT across the board.
In the not-too-distant future, battlefield engagements will involve swarms of robots overcoming traditional warfighters.
This notion is no longer only the domain of Hollywood writers and producers for movies like iRobot, Battlestar Galactica, and the Terminator. The vision is becoming a reality and potentially a devastating one for our adversaries.
The Gulf Times, 8 April 2008, reports: “Robot Troops on the March.”
“Now ground, air, and sea-based robots of all kinds are playing an increasing role in warfare. Pilotless robots are used for reconnaissance, targeting, and missile guidance. Some of them can even destroy targets. Ground-based robots are used for mine clearing and breaching barriers. Many of them are armed and can be used in warfare in high-risk urban environments.”
“There will be a time when robots will become the best value for the money. When this happens, a couple of battalions will be able to destroy an enemy tank division.”
What’s the vision or target architecture for robots to fight?
“Each robot will be armed with two-guided missiles and a machine gun [or two]. Equipped for a total of 1,200-2,400 robots controlled by 200-300 operators from a distance of several kilometers, these two battalions will be able to inflict heavy losses on enemy divisions, and destroy most of their tank and infantry combat vehicles.”
Similarly in the air and at sea: “enemy aircraft will be destroyed not by fighters, but by [swarms] of pilotless flying vehicles controlled from flying command posts.” [And] “Nuclear-powered submarines…will encounter the massive use of relatively compact underwater robots capable of carrying torpedoes.”
What are the primary benefits to robotic warfare?
- Minimal loss of human life, at least on the robot side of the battlefield
- Minimal financial cost in losing relatively inexpensive robots.
- Stealth and precision of robots
What are the major limitations?
Robots do not have “high-level artificial intellect” that enables prompt reactions to ever changing situations. “This is why remote controlled rather than fully autonomous robots are used.”
- Robots’ optical systems are inferior to the human eye-brain coordination.
I find this target architecture for the military to be on one hand fascinating and on the other hand frightening.
The potential of robotics for both helping and hurting people is enormous.
ComputerWorld, 12 April 2008, reports that “Robots are really an evolution of the technology we have now…they are evolving into something you will engage with and will serve you in your life somehow.”
Robots can work on the assembly line and produce the goods we need to survive; they can work jobs that are dangerous and dirty; and they can provide caretaking tasks and alleviate suffering and the physical demands on people. David Levy, a British Artificial Intelligence specialist even goes so far to predict that by the year 2050, humans will have not only emotional relationships with robots, but even love and intimacy. (OK, this is a little extreme!)
At the same time, robots are inanimate machines, without dictates of conscience or emotion; they can kill people or destroy things without hesitation or remorse. The clincher is that both these potential uses for robots (good and bad) are in the making and will come to fruition. The potential benefits as well as devastation to humanity are enormous.
Reflecting on this, I believe that EA plays an important role in ensuring that IT projects (like robots in warfare) are implemented with careful thought as to the potential consequences and managing the risk of these.
How can EA help with this?
Robots are a target architecture with commercial and military applications. Robots can be used in both positive and negative ways. In a sense, robots are like nuclear energy, which can be used to power the country or for developing weapons of mass destruction.
These targets architectures need to be planned and governed effectively to ensure safety and security. Through planning you develop the requirements, use cases, and develop the technologies, and through governance you make certain that they are implemented responsibly and effectively.
The EA functions of planning and governance are mutually reinforcing and self-correcting. EA plans are a strategic information asset for enhancing governance, while IT governance is the enforcement mechanism for EA plans. In this way, governance can be a counterbalance to planning, so that plans are thoroughly vetted and rationalized. Through governance, we enhance the organization’s decisions and plans and ensure that they are making the “right” investments, that they are wisely selected, implemented, and controlled.
So for example, with robotics, the planning element of EA provides the goals, objectives, and strategies for robotics in the target architecture, while the governance aspect of EA would ask relevant questions about the benefits, risks, strategic alignment, and architecture and ensure a clear way ahead.
EA planning is strategic, while EA governance is tactical.