Thursday, October 23, 2008

Non-Cooperative Human Subjects: Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!

“The Pentagon is looking for contractors to provide a "Multi-Robot Pursuit System" that will let packs of robots "search for and detect a non-cooperative human".

Original Department of Defense Proposal:

SITIS Topic Details
Program: SBIR
Topic Num: A08-204 (Army)
Title: Multi-Robot Pursuit System
Research & Technical Areas: Ground/Sea Vehicles
Objective: Develop a software and sensor package to enable a team of robots to search for and detect human presence in an indoor environment.

Description: There are many research efforts within robotics in path planning, exploration, and mapping of indoor and outdoor environments. Operator control units are available that allow semi-autonomous map-based control of a team of robots. While the test environments are usually benign, they are slowly becoming longer and more complex. There has also been significant research in the game theory community involving pursuit/evasion scenarios.

This topic seeks to merge these research areas and develop a software/hardware suit that would enable a multi-robot team, together with a human operator, to search for and detect a non-cooperative human subject. The main research task will involve determining the movements of the robot team through the environment to maximize the opportunity to find the subject, while minimizing the chances of missing the subject. If the operator is an active member of the search team, the software should minimize the chance that the operator may encounter the subject. As a simplification, the building layout could be given, although operating in an unknown environment with unknown obstacles is more realistic. The latter case should be studied at least in simulation. The software should maintain awareness of line-of-sight, as well as communication and sensor limits. It will be necessary to determine an appropriate sensor suite that can reliably detect human presence and is suitable for implementation on small robotic platforms. Additionally, the robot may not have the intelligence, sensing, or manipulative power to perform reconnaissance under full autonomy.

For example, the robot may not be able to negotiate all obstacles, determine the course of action when confronted with difficult choices, or have sufficient team members to optimally search. Part of the research will involve determining what role the human operator will play in the search task. The system should flag the operator when assistance is required. Typical robots for this type of activity are expected to weigh less than 100 Kg and the team would have three to five robots.

PHASE I: Develop the system design and determine the required capabilities of the platforms and sensors. Perform initial feasibility experiments, either in simulation or with existing hardware. Documentation of design tradeoffs and feasibility analysis shall be required in the final report.

PHASE II: Implement the software and hardware into a sensor package, integrate the package with a generic mobile robot, and demonstrate the system’s performance in a suitable indoor environment. Deliverables shall include the prototype system and a final report, which shall contain documentation of all activities in this project and a user's guide and technical specifications for the prototype system.

PHASE III: Robots that can intelligently and autonomously search for objects have potential commercialization within search and rescue, fire fighting, reconnaissance, and automated biological, chemical and radiation sensing with mobile platforms.

-DOD Small Business Innovation Research SITIS (, 2007).

“Given that iRobot last year struck a deal with Taser International to mount stun weapons on its military robots, how long before we see packs of droids hunting down pesky demonstrators with paralyzing weapons? Or could the packs even be lethally armed? I asked two experts on automated weapons what they thought. Both were concerned that packs of robots would be entrusted with tasks - and weapons - they were not up to handling without making wrong decisions.

Steve Wright of Leeds Metropolitan University is an expert on police and military technologies, and last year correctly predicted this pack-hunting mode of operation would happen:

"The giveaway here is the phrase 'a non-cooperative human subject'. What we have here are the beginnings of something designed to enable robots to hunt down humans like a pack of dogs. Once the software is perfected we can reasonably anticipate that they will become autonomous and become armed. We can also expect such systems to be equipped with human detection and tracking devices including sensors which detect human breath and the radio waves associated with a human heart beat. These are technologies already developed."

Another commentator often in the news for his views on military robot autonomy is Noel Sharkey, an AI and robotics engineer at the University of Sheffield. He understands why the military wants such technology, but also worries it will be used irresponsibly: "This is a clear step towards one of the main goals of the US Army's Future Combat Systems project, which aims to make a single soldier the nexus for a large scale robot attack. Independently, ground and aerial robots have been tested together and once the bits are joined, there will be a robot force under command of a single soldier with potentially dire consequences for innocents. ...If you have an autonomous robot then it's going to make decisions who to kill, when to kill and where to kill them. The scary thing is that the reason this has to happen is because of mission complexity and also so that when there's a problem with communications you can send a robot in with no communication and it will decide who to kill."

Sharkey also warned that such autonomous weapons could easily be used in the future by law enforcement officials in cites, pointing out that South Korean authorities are already planning to have a fully armed autonomous robot police force in their cities.”

-Steve Watson ( “Pentagon Wants Packs Of Robots To Detect Non-cooperative Humans”,, 9.23.08. DoD Proposal: See Above. -Paul Marks,“Packs of Robots Will Hunt Down Uncooperative Humans,” New Scientist, 10.22.08. Image: Model B-9, Class M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot. From Irwin Allen's classic 1960s sci-fi television show, "Lost In Space,", 2008).

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