Controlling Robotic Weapons

I’m delighted to be informed by Professor Noel Sharkey that I have been invited to become the first member of the Advisory Board of the International Campaign for Robotic Arms Control (ICRAC). ICRAC aims to help prevent the unfettered spread of automated weapons systems and to produce an international convention or some other kind of binding agreement to control their use. I’ve been tracking the develeopment of robotic surveillance (and killing) systems for quite a while now and I think this campaign is absolutely essential. This piece recently in The Times of London goes into some of the issues quite well. There is a lot of work to do here to persuade governments to control what many militaries think will be ‘essential’ to warfare in this coming century, but I think that the landmines campaign is a good example of what can be done here – but this time before robotic weapons become too common.

More military robots…

A story in the Daily Mail shows two new military robot surveillance devices developed for the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence and Equipment Support (DES) group. The first is a throwable rolling robot equipped with multiple sensors, which can be chucked like a hand-grenade and then operated by remote-control. The second is another Micro-(Unmanned) Aerial Vehicle (Micro-UAV or MAV), a tiny helicopter which carries a surveillance camera. There have been rolling surveillance robots around for a while now (like the Rotundus GroundBot from Sweden), but this toughened version seems to be unique. The helicopter MAV doesn’t seem to be particularly new, indeed it looks at least from the pictures, pretty similar to the one controversially bought by Staffordshire police in Britain – which is made by MicroDrones of Germany.

The proliferation of such devices in both military and civil use is pretty much unchecked and unnoticed by legislators at present. Media coverage seems to be limited to ‘hey, cool!’ and yes, they are pretty cool as pieces of technology, but being used in useful humanitarian contexts (for example, rolling robots getting pictures of a partially-collapsed building or MAVs flying over a disaster zone) is a whole lot different from warfare, which is a whole lot different again from civilian law enforcement, commercial espionage or simple voyeuristic purposes. As surveillance gets increasingly small, mobile and independent, we have a whole new set of problems for privacy, and despite the fact that we warned regulators about these problems back in 2006 in our Report on the Surveillance Society, little government thought seems to have been devoted to these and other new technologies of surveillance.

The use of robots in war is of course something else I have become very interested in, especially as these flying and rolling sensor-platforms are increasingly independent in their operation and, like the US Predator drones employed in Afghanistan and Pakistan or the MAARS battlefield robot made by Qinetiq / Foster-Miller, become weapons platforms too. This is an urgent but still largely unnoticed international human rights and arms control issue, and one which the new International Committee for Robotic Arms Control (in which I am now getting involved), will hopefully play a leading role in addressing.


Torin Monahan sent me this interesting video from the US Air Force showing ideas on Micro-Aerial Vehicles (MAVs) – nature-mimicking drones or independent robots that are intended to ‘enhance the capability of the future war-fighter’…

I’ve called for a convention on the use of robotic weapons and Professor Noel Sharkey and a couple of colleagues have now set up the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) – this video just illustrates why they need to be controlled as soon as possible before these kinds of things are widespread.

Time for an international convention on robotic weapons

The estimable Professor Noel Sharkey is calling today for a debate on the use of robotic weapon systems, like the UAVs that I have been covering sporadically. He’s right of course, but we need to go much further and much faster. With increasing numbers of counties turning to remote-controlled weapon systems, and the potential deployment of more independent or even ‘intelligent’ robots in war, hat we need is an international convention which will limit the development and use of automated weapon systems, with clear guidelines on what lines are not to be crossed. In the case of atomic, biological and chemical weapons these kinds of conventions have had mixed success, but we have had very few clear examples of the use of such weapons in international conflicts.