China’s robotic dog can shoot like a pro. What is the US doing?

Chinese scientists have found robotic dogs can fire a machine gun with the accuracy of a skilled shooter during testing. The findings could revolutionise the future of warfare, particularly when fighting battles in an urban landscape. — SCMP

Legions of robotic dogs are being produced by China, with most of the four-legged machines being used as novelty electronic pets or for doing mundane tasks such as carrying a discus to a track and field athlete. But not all of them.

Footage released by the Chinese military through state media in recent years shows some of these dogs are being armed and put into live military exercises.

Critics dismiss the videos as propaganda, arguing that the slight build of these robots would make them ill-suited to handle the recoil of standard firearms, let alone fire with the speed and precision of a trained soldier.

Others, however, see vast potential in this emerging technology, saying it could revolutionise future warfare.

The US Marine Corps bought several units to evaluate the combat effectiveness of the Chinese-made robotic dogs last year.

And while the results of that evaluation are not available, a study by Chinese scientists suggests these robotic dogs may outshoot even seasoned troops when it comes to handling firearms.

The study “demonstrates the feasibility of a legged strike platform”, lead scientist Xu Cheng and his team wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published in the Chinese Journal of Engineering last month.

But the US military might not have been using these dogs in the best way to achieve their full potential in battle, according to the Chinese team’s findings.

Xu is a professor of mechanical engineering with the Nanjing University of Science and Technology. He is also a vice-president of the Chinese Light Weapons Society. The university has long been sanctioned by the US due to its close ties with the Chinese military.

As part of their study, Xu’s team put a 7.62mm machine gun on a robotic dog. The gun they used was capable of firing 750 rounds per minute, though the model was not specified. The weapon also had an optoelectronic sight, shock-absorbing mount and automatic reloading system.

The robotic dog then fired 10-round bursts at a human-sized target standing 100 metres (328 feet) away.

After multiple rounds of firing, the half-dispersion radius, which is the maximum distance between the centre of the target and the five closest bullet holes, was measured to be around 5cm (2 inches).

In other words, if the robot aimed at a person’s chest, most bullets would land within the heart region, a difficult feat for machine guns which are known more for their suppressive firepower than accuracy.

By comparison, the M16 assault rifle, known for its precision, has a factory-standard half-dispersion radius of 12cm at 100 metres. Skilled shooters can halve that figure.

This technology could potentially have a significant impact on the future of warfare, according to the researchers.

“Urban warfare, encompassing anti-terrorism operations, hostage rescue missions, and the clearance of streets and buildings alike, has steadily risen to prominence as a fundamental facet of contemporary conflict,” Xu and his colleagues wrote in their paper.

“The urban landscape, with its maze of intersecting streets and towering edifices packed tightly together, poses unique challenges for unmanned combat platforms. These platforms must negotiate unstructured terrain and execute intricate actions such as manoeuvring, scaling and leaping – rendering traditional wheeled and tracked designs inadequate.

“Quadruped platforms, based on bionic principles, can use independent ground support points to provide enhanced mobility and adaptability in complex urban combat environments.”

Other countries have also tried to use robotic dogs in combat. As early as 2015, Boston Dynamics developed a giant quadruped robot for the US military. However, due to excessive noise and other drawbacks, the technology never went beyond the experimental stage.

Then in 2020, Boston Dynamics introduced the Spot, a civilian model priced US$70,000-US$140,000 (RM331,030-RM662,060).

Meanwhile in China, initially its robotic dogs lagged behind its American counterparts in technological advancement. But that gap has narrowed considerably in recent years.

Chinese robotic dogs can now navigate stairs, perform acrobatic feats such as backflips, traverse garbage dumps or tropical rainforests, and maintain a continuous run for nearly four hours while carrying a 20kg load.

Plus, thanks to China’s burgeoning electronics industry and complete industrial chain, the price of a Chinese robotic dog has plummeted to as low as US$3,000 (RM14,187) – less than even the US$4,000 (RM18,916) price of a battery pack for the Spot.

But this does not mean Chinese robotic dogs are combat-ready right out of the factory.

From publicly available photos, the US military often simply straps weapons onto the robotic dogs for testing.

According to the Chinese scientists, this approach is wrong.

In the paper, Xu’s team detailed a weapon mount that is structurally simple, cost-effective and highly functional for the robotic dogs. This mount is a must because it enables the machine gun to point freely on the dog’s back while effectively absorbing recoil to minimise muzzle jump during sustained fire.

Also, as the US military bought the robot dogs from overseas, they may not fully understand their inner workings. This can bring further challenges.

Accurately predicting the physical state after firing a shot, for instance, requires modelling the gun and robotic dog as an integrated flexible system – a complex computational challenge. The high-precision motors distributed throughout the robotic dog’s body, controlled by chips, must adjust in real-time to absorb complex impacts, according to the researchers.

In China, with the support of advanced artificial intelligence technology and the drone industry, these challenging issues have been resolved. Nevertheless, Xu’s team said that there was still room for further improvement,n the current technology, such as considering the gaps between joints in the physical model, increasing the ammunition capacity beyond 100 rounds and validating the accuracy of the robotic dog’s shooting while moving.

Meanwhile an artificial intelligence scientist based in Beijing said that the foremost challenge in deploying robotic dogs for combat lies not in technology, but in ethics.

As AI technology rapidly evolves, robotic dogs’ capacity to comprehend the world and make decisions will grow rapidly, potentially crossing ethical boundaries, said the researcher who requested not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

“They will soon reach a point where they can independently decide whether a human is an enemy,” he said.

“The ultimate dilemma will be whether to pull the trigger or not.” – South China Morning Post

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