Spot, the quadruped robot built by US firm Boston Dynamics, has appeared alongside soldiers during military exercises carried out by the French army. The robot was apparently being used for reconnaissance during a two-day training exercise, but the deployment raises questions about how and where Boston Dynamics’ machines will be used in future.
Pictures of the exercises were shared on Twitter by France’s foremost military school, the École Spéciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr. It described the tests as “raising students’ awareness of the challenges of tomorrow,” which include the “robotization of the battlefield.”
A report by French newspaper Ouest-France offers more detail, saying that Spot was one of a number of robots being tested by students from France’s École Militaire Interarmes (Combined Arms School), with the intention of assessing the usefulness of robots on future battlefields.
Boston Dynamics’ vice president of business development Michael Perry told The Verge that the robot had been supplied by a European distributor, Shark Robotics, and that the US firm had not been notified in advance about its use. “We’re learning about it as you are,” says Perry. “We’re not clear on the exact scope of this engagement.”
During the two-day deployment, Ouest-France says soldiers ran a number of scenarios, including an offensive action capturing a crossroads, defensive actions during night and day, and an urban combat test. Each scenario was performed using just humans and then using humans and robots together to see what difference the machines made.
Sources quoted in the article say that the robots slowed down operations but helped keep troops safe. “During the urban combat phase where we weren’t using robots, I died. But I didn’t die when we had the robot do a recce first,” one soldier is quoted as saying. They added that one problem was Spot’s battery life: it apparently ran out of juice during an exercise and had to be carried out.
It’s not clear what role Spot was playing (neither Shark Robotics nor the École de Saint-Cyr had replied to requests for comment at the time of writing), but Ouest-France suggests it was being used for reconnaissance. The 70lb Spot (31kg) is equipped with cameras and can be remote controlled, with its four legs allowing it to navigate terrain that would challenge wheeled or treaded robots. To date, it’s been used to remotely survey a number of environments, from construction sites to factories and underground mines.
In addition to Spot, other machines being tested by the French military included OPTIO-X20, a remote-controlled vehicle with tank treads and auto cannon built by Estonian firm Milrem Robotics; ULTRO, a wheeled “robot mule” made for carrying equipment built by French state military firm Nexter; and Barakuda, a multipurpose wheeled drone that can provide mobile cover to soldiers with attached armored plating.
Spot’s appearance on simulated battlefields raises questions about where the robot will be deployed in future. Boston Dynamics has a long history of developing robots for the US army, but as it’s moved into commercial markets it’s distanced itself from military connections. Spot is still being tested by a number of US police forces, including by the NYPD, but Boston Dynamics has always stressed that its machines will never be armed. “We unequivocally do not want any customer using the robot to harm people,” says Perry.
Spot’s terms and conditions forbid it from being used “to harm or intimidate any person or animal, as a weapon, or to enable any weapon,” and it’s possible to argue that a robot helping to scout buildings for soldiers is not technically harming or intimidating anyone. But if that recon is the prelude to a military engagement it seems like a flimsy distinction.
Boston Dynamics’ Perry told The Verge that the company had clear policies forbidding suppliers or customers from weaponizing the robot, but that the firm is “still evaluating” whether or not to ban non-weaponized deployments by military customers.
“We think that the military, to the extent that they do use robotics to take people out of harm’s way, we think that’s a perfectly valid use of the technology,” says Perry. “With this forward-deployment model that you’re discussing, it’s something we need to better understand to determine whether or not it’s actively being used to harm people.”
Despite worries from researchers and advocates, militaries around the world are increasingly pushing robots onto the battlefield. Remotely operated drones have been the most significant deployment to date, but other use cases — including robots that can scout, survey, and patrol — are also being tested. Robotic quadrupeds similar to Spot built by rival firm Ghost Robotics are currently being tested by the US Air Force as replacements for stationary surveillance cameras. If robots prove reliable as roaming CCTV, it’s only a matter of time before those capabilities are introduced to active combat zones.
Additional reporting by Aude White.