A future where robots will assist human combatants during conflict inched closer in late August during — of all things — an annual exercise involving the Army National Guard:

The Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, demonstrated the so-called “wingman” capability, which teams manned and unmanned platforms to provide added lethality and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the field.

The goal of manned-unmanned teaming is to deliver lethal force while soldiers maintain a safe distance from an adversary and to “extend the reach of the warfighter,” said Maj. John Dickson, assistant product manager for the emerging capabilities office at TARDEC.

“You can engage the enemy from positions of relative advantage while keeping yourself behind cover,” he said. “The robots can go out and engage the enemy and deliver those effects … as opposed to having to put a human right there in harm’s way.”

But while the robot is delivering the effects, “it is a human that is pushing the button that pulls the trigger,” he noted.

The exercise, Northern Strike, took place from July 29 to Aug. 12 at Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center in Michigan. The annual exercise hosted by the Michigan National Guard brings about 5,000 service members from 13 states and five coalition countries together to demonstrate proficiency in a variety of missions in a joint and multinational environment, according to the Michigan National Guard.

Source: National Defense Magazine

Why it’s on our radar: There are legitimate ethical concerns regarding the use of robotics in armed conflict and those conversations will continue, but it is naive to think that militaries all over the world — those belonging to countries that can afford them — will not incorporate some form of robotics into their combat capabilities. This particular exercise was to test the viability and functionality of unmanned aerial vehicles that assisted troops in navigating terrain and contact with the enemy, but everything from exoskeletons that dramatically increase soldier strength and endurance to full-on robotic offensive hardware is currently under development. Robots will be equipped with artificial intelligence at some point in the future, and while some are warning against developing them, the attraction is too strong: Robots do not share the frailties — physical, emotional and otherwise — endemic to the human race.

And consider this: Another way to look at unmanned drone warfare is offensive combat conducted via a robotic airborne platform. Also, military forces (and police departments for that matter) use robots in a bomb-disposal role. So robotic warfare, in many ways, is already here.