Droid Dogs Now Defending Democracy

Veterans Day celebrations last week honored both humans and canines who served their country. Future celebrations may look a bit different though because military working dogs (MWD’s) have gone high tech. How high tech? Let’s say Arf2D2. That’s right. The U.S. military is now beginning to use robot dogs.

While computerized canines are something new, dogs have been used by the U.S. military since Revolutionary War times. Man’s best friend was tasked with killing rats in the trenches in World War I. Over 10,000 trained dogs were deployed during World War II to serve as scouts, sentries, messengers, and mine detectors. Today military working dogs are used by the Marines, Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, and the Navy. It remains to be seen if there will be any Rocket Rovers in the Space Force.

Living, breathing MWD’s are typically one of three breeds–German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois. But the newest MWD to be used is a breed apart. In fact, it’s not even alive. It’s a robot.

These electronic canines are already on active duty in the Florida Panhandle. The 325th Security Forces Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City is the first unit to operate robot dogs to patrol alongside them. These “semi-autonomous droids” are being used to provide extra security while guarding the base, a 38 square kilometer compound. Who knew there was much left to guard after Hurricane Michael pretty much flattened the base which is having to be rebuilt?

The day before Veterans Day, the Tyndall unit gave a demonstration of their new equipment/service members. Actually, the robots they presented evoke more of a Halloween feel to me. I mean how creepy is it to have a faceless dog with four legs and no teeth by your side?

So what’s so great about having a robot dog to help with patrolling operations? (That’s other than the obvious that they won’t pick up fleas and ticks outdoors, don’t have to be fed, and won’t need potty breaks.) A big plus is that this “dog” can patrol areas not desirable for humans or for vehicles. It can be programmed with a patrol route which is monitored by a Security Forces “electronic security sensor system NCO.” I guess that NCO is the technical equivalent of a handler.

And this handler doesn’t even have to be out on patrol. Oh, no. He/she can drive the dog with a virtual reality headset within the cushy (well, at least opposed to being out in the elements) Base Defense Ops Center. The handler will be able to see exactly what the dog sees through the dog’s mobile camera. Verbal commands can be issued through a radio attached to the dog. “Play dead” might be difficult to do, though, since technically the robot dog isn’t alive to begin with.

Although the electronic canine is not armed (and has no teeth), it does have some other cool features. Night duty? No problem. The robot is fitted with various sensors to allow for infrared night vision. If desired, gas sensors can be included. Given the location, being beset by a hurricane is probably more likely than a gas attack.

So from where were these robot dogs procured? A defense contractor based in Philadelphia developed them as part of an Air Force Research Lab contract awarded back in April. Reading between the lines, we can conclude that it is easier to develop a robotic dog than to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

The developer, Ghost Robotics (see, I told you this sounded more like Halloween than Veterans Day), calls their product a Vision 60 UGV. The UGV stands for unmanned ground vehicle. OK, is it a dog or a vehicle? Who knows since most details on the UGV are under wraps. For example, no one knows if the electronic canines will be issued dog tags.

What do we know about the dog droid? Ghost Robotics claims the robot is “unstoppable.” Their product, it says, can operate in any terrain or environment. Because of its reduced mechanical complexity (such as lacking a face and teeth perhaps?), the electronic canine has increased endurance, agility, and durability.

So far, the robot dogs have performed well. According to a September 3rd press release by the Air Force, they were involved in an exercise conducted at Nellis Air Force Base. The manmade MWD’s were sent outside aircraft located in the Mojave Desert to scout for threats before human service members deplaned. The dogs, through their mobile cameras, allowed the troops to obtain visuals of the area while staying close to their aircraft. From all indications, this test of a component of the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) was a success. Cut and paste this link to see what the droid dog looks like in action: https://www.cnn.com/videos/business/2020/09/09/robot-dogs-join-us-military-exercise-lon-orig-na.cnn-business/video/playlists/business-robots/

But just how much are these electronic canines costing the taxpayer? Who knows, but the likely answer is “a lot.” Another dog robot, called “Spot,” is being sold by engineering company Boston Dynamics for a mere $74,500. Spot can walk up to three miles per hour, climb terrain, avoid obstacles, and work in spaces unsafe for humans such as decommissioned nuclear sites. See Spot walk. Walk, Spot, walk. Even better, Spot has a “follow me” AI (artificial intelligence) feature. You want to make sure Spot follows you because you wouldn’t want $74,500 to run off chasing a rabbit.

Spot has been used in the civilian world. It was deployed in Singapore to enforce social distancing due to COVID-19 at the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Par theme park. That’s right. If those park guests get too close to one another, just sic the droid dog on them. Perhaps the electronic canines even barked orders for folks to stay six feet apart.

No matter how well the UGV works, the military has indicated it is not intending to replace Fido with Arf2D2. Some things a robot dog simply can’t do. Without a face, it’s impossible for a droid dog to lick your hand or give you a look of love or loyalty. Droids may be primo patrollers, but they’ll never be man’s best friend.

Just WONDERing:

Were you aware that real dogs have had such a long history with military action? Are robotic dogs a good investment for the military? Why or why not? How could droid dogs be used by the Space Force?