Robots in the Kill Chain – Hollywood verses Reality

Robots in the Kill Chain

Part 1: The motion picture industry has provided us with many memorable innovations and concepts concerning the employment of robotic technology in law enforcement, counter-terrorism and war. In reality, the robots of today already provide valuable capability to war fighters, saving lives and increasing the efficiency of the kill chain in military and security operations. As evolutionary advancements in key enabling technologies occur, future robotic systems will use autonomy to become highly capable, collaborative & connected members of military and law enforcement formations.

UAV’s, Droids and Sith Lords

Recon Droid

Droids, less commonly known as robots, are mechanical beings that possess artificial intelligence. They are used in a variety of roles and environments, primarily those considered too difficult or too dangerous for other species, but also in applications that require extensive sensory perception, specialization and endurance.

SithProbeDroidA probe droid, also known as a recon droid, or probot, is a type of droid that can be used for reconnaissance. My readers recall seeing the extensive use of probe droids in George Lucas’s Star Wars Film series. There were at least two known models of a probe droid: the DRK-1 probe and the Viper probe. The Sith Lord Darth Maul employed three DRK-1 probes to search for the Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi on Tatooine. When the Rebel Alliance moved their base to Hoth, a Viper probe droid was sent to find them. One of them successfully arrived on Hoth and transmitted its information back to the Empire, who subsequently launched an attack. The droid was later intercepted and its data was captured, giving the Alliance enough warning time to prepare for the attack.

UAV.SquareIn reality, unmanned air vehicles (UAV) have become an integrated component of the modern military and security forces arsenal. Most of these air vehicles are remotely piloted and have limited semi-autonomous behaviors (such as the Predator A with Hellfire missiles pictured at right). A notable exception is the Boeing developed X-45 (pictured at top) that features an extremely low-profile dorsal intake placed near the leading edge of the aircraft. The center fuselage is blended into a swept lambda wing, with a small exhaust outlet. It has no vertical control surfaces, thereby reducing its radar signature. Split ailerons near each wingtip function as asymmetric air brakes, providing rudder control, much as in Northrop’s flying wings. Removing the human pilot from the aircraft dramatically reduces the aircraft’s cost. Ground-based pilots execute the higher level decisions, but the mechanical flying of the aircraft is completely autonomous.

What Is The Kill Chain?

Kill Chain Time Line

In the present day conflict and heightened security environment, the kill chain represents the time sequence required to identify, confirm, track, target, engage and assess the elimination of threats and adversaries. Military and security forces are always actively pursuing the compression of this time chain sequence through the employment of sensors, robotics, artificial intelligence, data analysis, knowledge fusion, and precision kinetic effects by utilizing them together in new concepts of operations (CONOPS).

find fix track

Today the United States Air Force (USAF) prosecutes it’s mission to fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace with an advanced array of  kill chain compression assets. Note that the USAF now includes cyberspace as a war fighting domain within it’s purview, and has stood up major military commands to ensure operational impunity in cyberspace in order to execute its missions.

AIR FORCE CYBER COMMAND (AFCYBER) MISSION: Provide combat ready forces trained and equipped to conduct sustained global operations in and through cyberspace, fully integrated with air and space operations. AFCYBER will provide robust, survivable access to cyberspace with offensive and defensive capabilities that ensure cross-domain freedom of action for our friends and allies, and deny the same to our adversaries.

A real-time in-depth understanding of the battle space and one-time-of-flight strike are two of the key attributes the USAF employs to ensure it’s kill chain compression mission success.

Joint Forces Air Component Commander (JFACC) Air Support Mission

kill chain compression

As war fighting doctrine has evolved from the recent counter insurgency (COIN) conflicts primarily in Southwest Asia, the result has been increased coordination and efficiency from new CONOPS to support war fighters on the ground with remarkable air support kill chain time compression.

1. Forward deployed troops locate enemy fighters.
2. Soldiers illuminate the target with a laser.
3. Joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) coordinate through an Air Operations Center.
4. A 39-year old B-52 drops GPS enabled precision guided munitions (PGM) on the target.

All this occurs in minutes . . .

For more on the JTAC and PGM, please see: Ka-Boom in COIN

Special Operations Forces CONOPS

As small remotely piloted unmanned air vehicles (UAV) are employed by ground forces to provide increased situation awareness at the small unit echelon (squad, platoon, company, battalion), opportunities to integrate their real-time data into the larger battlefield situation awareness picture will create further acceleration.

In the example above, Air Force Special Operation Command (AFSOC) Special Tactics Battlefield Air Operations (BAO) kits are deployed with Special Tactics personnel. A micro UAV such as the Raven shown here enables small units to conduct over the horizon surveillance. When adversaries are identified (red force), data is passed to satellites and autonomous roving air vehicles such as the Global Hawk UAV over secure airborne networks to higher commands. Blue force tracking, targeting, moving maps, high definition video and other real-time data is fused by the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) and Air Operations Center (AOC) Weapon Systems. There is no manual entry as all data transmits machine to machine resulting in a 70% reduction in approval to execution time. The kill chain is now highly efficient and vastly compressed.

UAV UGV Collaboration

Given that air vehicle delivered kinetic payloads do not discriminate between friendly and adversary forces in their terminal trajectory phase, it is logical to employ robot ground vehicles (UGV) in support and coordination of robot air vehicles (UAV) to provide sufficient standoff distance. Fixing, tracking and targeting functions are all suitable for the UGV with its cameras, high definition video capture, sensors, mesh networking, laser rangefinder and target illumination features.

Method of Entry, Sticky Bombs and Erwin Rommel

Weaponized Ground Robot

Robots for Infantry Support

In the Jonathan Liebesman 2011 film Battlefield Los Angeles, we are introduced to the remarkable walking Robot Gun during an invasion of planet earth from aliens embedded inside meteors. This arrangement is more of an infantry support weapon than an actual robotic vehicle. The Robot Gun fires 16 small guidedBLAA2 missiles at a target in order to destroy firing positions offering defilade to adversaries. While the gun is generally well-armored, a shot to one of the joints is able to temporarily stagger one, although the pulse jet engines at the rear of the machine are able to right it again quickly. Weapon designers abandoned wheels and tracks in favor of leg-like appendages to afford their design increased mobility in broken terrain as occurs in urban environments. Each walking gun is presumably tele-operated by one of the alien soldiers, although one could speculate that on-board sensors, processors and artificial intelligence (AI) provide the necessary construct to enable fully autonomous target acquisition, targeting and kinetic effects with no man-in-the-trigger loop. The guns are used to support both operations and general infantry during a battle.

In reality the Qinetiq Special Weapons Observation Remote Direct-Action System (SWORDS) and Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS) is a robot platform designed for reconnaissance,MTg5MzczMw surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA) to increase security at forward locations. It can be configured for non-lethal, less-lethal, and lethal effects. The system weighs approximately 369 lbs. fully loaded with sensors, weapons, and ammunition. Its battery can last 3–12 hours, with a sleep mode to last for up to one week. The robot can move at 7 mph and travel 800–1000 meters from its controller. It has a seven cameras for driving, situation awareness, and for the weapon that can operate in daytime or thermal modes. The robot is armed with an M240B machine gun and four M203 grenade launcher tubes on a 360 degree rotating turret. It carries 450 rounds of machine gun ammo and four grenade rounds. Grenades can include sponge, buckshot, and tear gas for less-lethal purposes, and explosive and air burst for lethal purposes. Each tube is loaded individually, allowing lethal and less-lethal capabilities to be available and selected when needed. Other features include an on-board loudspeaker to communicate, a siren, a laser dazzler, and a gunfire detection system. The weapons system can be replaced with a manipulator arm that can lift 120 lbs., making it able to pick up 155 mm artillery rounds, and can pull over 300 lbs.

Robot Breaching Method Of Entry


A ground robot is very useful in supporting method of entry tactics for small unit operations in urban environments. In this method of entry mission vignette (images above), I wired a shaped C4 drop charge with a sticky surface to the radio frequency (RF) fire control circuit integrated into an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) ground robot.  My readers recall seeing Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) employ a similar sticky bomb concept to impair the mobility of the Wehrmacht’s armored vehicles  in the 1998 Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan.

Captain MillerThe first image clearly shows the C4 sticky charge in my left hand, and wired to a line payout spooler. The second image shows the robot carrying the shaped charge in the gripper arrangement on a manipulator arm en route to the breach site. The third image shows the remote detonation of the explosive charge after precise placement on the target door locking mechanism by the robot. We backed the robot off the door using the line spooler and closed the blast shield to protect the sensitive cameras before detonation. The fourth image shows the three man special forces team entering the target site through the now breached doorway.

I created this short video to help my readers further understand this robot assisted sticky bomb breaching concept.

UAV / UGV Robot Assisted Route Clearance

Given that guerrilla and insurgent formations do not have the means nor the appetite to take on western military forces head on, their primary weapon still remains the improvised explosive devise (IED).  Placed adjacent to high value infrastructure, road crossings, bridges and vehicular choke points, IED’s present a major challenge to organized military formations seeking to exert influence over a population while denying similar influence to adversaries.

Clearing routes through IED laden roads to ensure the safe passage of military and civilian convoys now requires a substantial arsenal of advanced technology including airborne ground penetrating radar with processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) in the air, and mine resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPS) and EOD UGV’s on the ground.

The Anti Personnel Obstacle Breaching System (APOBS) is a technology concept employing a tele-operated unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) with a rocket trajectory delivered line charge. The system provides standoff distance for combat engineers to remotely deploy the charges and blast clear road lanes for maneuver forces and supply columns. The following video illustrates the CONOPS.

Erwin_RommelDuring a military robots demonstration I conducted for the Egyptian Army in Cairo,  this capability was presented to military officials and combat engineers. The next day they returned and informed me there was a C-130 military transport plane standing by at the airport to load me and my team of engineers with our robots for immediate transport to the Libyan border! Upon my further inquiry, it was revealed they wanted to employ the system to clear thousands of unexploded mines from the El Alamein battlefield left there by Erwin Rommel and his Desert Afrika Corps (DAK) from 1942 (no joke). This land reclamation effort was to support modern day oil field drilling operations on the Egyptian side of the border.

Sdkfz302Rommel’s exploits against the British are depicted in the 1951 film, The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel, from director Henry Hathaway. Not in the movie is the possibility that the DAK could have broken through the British lines to the Suez canal, and changed the course of history. Given Hitler’s appetite for rocket weapons such as the V1 and V2, as well as his adventures with remotely piloted tracked ground vehicles employed on suicide missions against tanks and dense infantry formations (the famous Goliath SdKfz. 302 pictured at left), it is conceivable that German designers could have provided an APOBS-like capability to the DAK combat engineers at El Alamein to contend with the millions of mines that still remain there today.

Robots Supporting Dismounted Infantry In Urban Operations

DR10_smRecent improvements to the ratio of power consumption, weight, and performance of electromechanical assemblies have enabled a new class of small unmanned ground vehicle robots for supporting dismounted infantry in high tempo operations. The Dragon Runner UGV is small enough to fit inside a soldiers assault pack, and tough enough to be thrown and survive rough handling and adverse weather. Using a wearable controller, the warfighter XM1216sends the UGV ahead of his small unit to employ its day and night sensors and deliver situational awareness in the form of augmented reality back to the squad leader and his team. The robot serves as the forward eyes of the team while also being used to deliver remote sensors and emplace counter-IED plastic explosive charges.

Augmeneted Reality

Black Hawk DownIn the 2011 Ridley Scott film Black Hawk Down, we are presented with a true story and realistic look at the challenges of cordon and search tactics in contested urban environments when 100 U.S. Army Rangers are dropped by helicopter deep into the capital city of Mogadishu to capture two top lieutenants of a Somali warlord. The Rangers successfully capture the two advisers inside the target building, but the Rangers and helicopters escorting the ground-extraction convoy take heavy fire resulting in 19 American soldiers killed and the loss of two Black Hawks.

Platoon Mission 1The asymmetric advantage provided by an UGV can increase the operational envelope of small units in urban environments, delivering increased effectiveness and efficiency while saving soldiers lives. UGV’s provide a small unit maneuver force with stand off reconnaissance while reducing the potential for escalation. They also provide a vastly lower profile penetration of structures while delivering early warning of entry obstacles, booby traps and IED’s.

Platoon Mission 1.1An UGV can identity building occupants and occupant activity, while aiding in the determination of intent. High definition video reveals the configuration of rooms, objects, entry and exit points while also offering advanced location of targets. All this situational awareness reduces the potential for collateral damage and civilian casualties, increases the speed of information exploitation and operations – while saving lives in the process.

Cyborgs, Exoskeletons and Super Warriors

Cybernetic Organism

In the 1987 Paul Verhoeven film RoboCop, we are presented with  policeman Alex Murphy who is killed by a street gang and subsequently re-built and re-animated (like Frankenstein) as a cyborg with a unique set of schematics and state-of-the-art equipment including titanium and Kevlar-laminated armor and mechanical hands that can exert 400 foot lbs. of force. RoboCop is very successful against criminals and becomes a target of super villain Boddicker in the crime-ridden Detroit of the future.

200px-Flickr_-_The_U_S__Army_-_U_S__Army_World_Class_Athlete_Program_ParalympicIn reality, a prosthesis is an artificial device that replaces a missing body part, which may be lost through trauma, disease, or congenital conditions. Take the example of Sgt. Jerrod Fields, a U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program Paralympic sprinter.  Pictured at right, fields works out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. A below-the-knee amputee, Fields won a gold medal in the 100 meters with a time of 12.15 seconds at the Endeavor Games in Edmond, Okla., on June 13, 2009.

While cyborgs are commonly thought of as mammals, including humans, they might also conceivably be any kind of organism. It is hypothesized that cyborg technology will form a part of post-biological evolution, in the form of trans-humanism – where people (or animals) are artificially enhanced beyond their original biological characteristics. It is logical to infer this increased capability could manifest itself as super warriors in the kill chain of the not too distant future.

Powered Exoskeleton

In Marvels 2008 film by Jon Favreau, Stark Industries (looking a lot like Lockheed Martin Skunk Works) builds a powered exoskeleton and becomes the technologically advanced superhero Iron Man in a powered flying suit. I found it somewhat ironic that the original film was created at the former Howard Hughes Company sound stages in Playa Vista, Los Angeles, California.

XOS2In reality, XOS 2 is a second-generation robotics suit developed for the US Army that was publicly demonstrated to show the capabilities of an exoskeleton concept for the first time in Salt Lake City Utah in September 2010.

The wearable robotic suit increases the human strength, agility and endurance capabilities of the soldier inside it. The XOS 2 uses high-pressure hydraulics to allow the wearer to lift heavy objects at a ratio of 17:1 (actual weight to perceived weight). This allows repeated lifting of the load without exhaustion or injury. The XOS system was originally developed as the Wearable Energetically Autonomous Robot (WEAR) by Sarcos Research of Salt Lake City.

The Future of Robots In The Kill Chain

Robot Team of the Future

Robot EvolutionToday’s battlefield robots are deployed primarily as tools in support of the war fighter. As advances occur in science and engineering, robots are on course to evolve into semi-autonomous teammates that work alongside of the war fighter.

Getting there will require further advancements to support autonomy such as speech and gesture recognition.  Sensor data for electro-optical, infra-red, light detection and ranging (LIDAR), radar and global positioning system (GPS) locations will need to compress in order to operate on high traffic, secure wireless networks. Bandwidth limitations must be resolved to allow the number of robots that can be simultaneously operated in the same area to increase.


Heterogeneous Marsupial Robots Deploy From Their Mother.

As robots evolve into more autonomous members of a military or security force and take on more sophisticated missions, enabling technologies to support this increased autonomy must improve to support reconnaissance, navigation, collision avoidance and mapping functions. Robots will also need to learn self defense.

Eventually we will see robots operating as teams in of themselves, conducting autonomous end to end missions with limited or no human intervention. The enabling technologies will require advancements with marsupial robots, power scavenging, and the creation of an advanced network capability enabling full collaboration between robot “team” members. Robots will need to create self-assembling and self-healing networks where robots act as communications nodes, and all sensor data from any robot is available on request from other robots.


CloneHollywood has given us a fantastic vision of the future of law enforcement, counter-terrorism and war fighting technology employing droids, cyborgs and powered exoskeletons. In reality, today’s robots already provide a valuable capability to war fighting and law enforcement operations in pursuit of kill chain compression and efficiency. As evolutionary advancements in enabling technology occur, future robotic systems will use autonomy to become highly capable, collaborative & connected teams on the battlefield and in our communities . . .

Acronym Help

About the Author
I am an accomplished advanced and disruptive technology analyst. I help organizations manage their overall marketing strategy and efforts including market analysis, identification of business opportunities and risks, strategic alliances and partnering, systems engineering and customer requirements, business development programs and marketing, advertising and communications initiatives & plans.

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