Death from above? Drones and robots to soon offer close-air support during street battles

Gun-toting drones that can deliver precise, controlled, street-level backup could be a reality in the near future.

Drones carrying guns are available todayDuke Robotics

Wars of the future might actually have fewer casualties of soldiers considering how advancements in technology are making battlefields more reliant on drones and robots than putting actual people in the frontlines.

Armies and defence companies from around the world are creating and developing weapons based on artificial intelligence and autonomous machine learning and in some cases, leaning towards them more than conventional weapons.

Duke Robotics, for example, a company that specialises in weapon technology, has developed a drone that can hold and fire a machine gun from the sky.

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Called the TIKAD, it is a drone with a gun that can be remotely operated and fired from a distance.

"Over the last few years, we have seen how the needs of our troops in our battlefield have changed," said Raziel Atuar, Duke Robotics CEO who is also, according to a company release, a former Special Mission Unit commander.

Duke, in its report, claims that army to army combat has become rare and that guerrilla warfare is more common, but using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) to fire small arms is a technology that has not yet been a viable option.

Atuar pointed out that terrorists often hide in civilian areas, and because of the risk of collateral damage, it is not possible to call in missile strikes. He added that the primary solution is to send in ground troops, but the risk of losing soldiers is also high and that is why they "created the solution — the TIKAD".

TIKAD, according to the company, is intended for use by governments and has "a unique suppression firing and stabilisation solution" which, it claims, allows for stable flight, recoil control, as well as gives soldiers the ability to fire precisely and is completely remotely operated.

Duke Robotics claims that the TIKAD will weigh 50kg and be capable of flying up to 1,500ft. The drone apparently can also carry a range of semi-automatic weapons as well as a 40mm grenade launcher.

In a statement made to Digital Trends, Atuar said: "We are in the process of implementing an initial order from the Israeli ministry of defence, and we are in contact with selected governments as potential customers." He added that information about which governments have ordered how many such drones is sensitive and that governments will have to decide when they want to share such information.

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Duke has also been able to mount a sniper rifle on to their drones. It might be possible for soldiers to operate these drones at a street level instead of having to work from several hundred metres away, hidden.

Reaper and Predator drones and other types of military drones have always been outfitted with several guns and other weapons systems. Drones that are small enough to operate at the street level, holding and firing guns can be called a recent development. Small drones like the PD-100 Black Hornet, which weighs a mere 18 grams, have so far been tested and used by the military more in reconnaissance roles than in active combat. There are, reportedly plans to create swarms of small drones that confuse enemy radar by forming something like a blanket with sensors, according to military.com

There have been expositions of advanced weaponry that rely on machines making decisions rather than using people to be present fighting each other. Missiles that can steer themselves, guns that can find their own targets and drones that can swarm enemy territory under a hive mind are reportedly not too far away.

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Until robots are able to fight themselves and hopefully not unite against humans, there are remotely controlled weapons like drones that are being developed which makers hope would reduce the number of soldier and civilian deaths that battles claim.

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Drones have become the mainstay in army operations across the world. Providing assistance to ground troops, reaper and predator drones, for example, have reportedly become precise enough to operate at what the Pentagon calls "danger-close" distances, according to the Los Angeles Times. That means, ordnance delivered from a drone has around one in a thousand chance of physical incapacitation (PI) of troops operating in the area and the PI will last for five minutes after an attack. Such close proximity will be considered "danger-close", according to globalsecurity.org.

"Ideally you don't want to accept that level of risk unless you have to," said Col Julian C Cheater, commander at Creech Air Force Base, where most US Predator and Reaper drone pilots are based. "But in an urban fight — like you're now seeing in Raqqah (Isis stronghold) — options might not be available to you," he told the LA Times.

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Options, however, seem to exist in the form of smaller drones equipped with guns like the TIKAD.

So will gun-handling drones change the course of warfare in the near future and possibly reduce the number of deaths? Drones getting more and more capable, however, may not be the answer.

Consumer drones, on the other hand, are getting more powerful, cheap and have the potential to be used for nefarious purposes because small drones are also not too far from getting weaponised.

Companies that make consumer drones usually have inbuilt geofencing systems that restrict their usage in no-fly zones and other restricted air spaces, but such systems are reportedly easy to hack. Verge reported on a Russian company, Coptersafe, that has built and sells mods called NFZ that remove such restrictions either through hardware additions, software upgrades, or a combination of the two.

These mods allegedly scramble the inbuilt GPS systems of drones and removes both no-fly restrictions as well as the 500-metre height restriction for drones. As of now, these hacks work only on DJI branded drones, according to the report.

A recent software update was rolled out by DJI, which included power management systems as well as a few other enhancements to their drones' functionality, but is not clear if it will be able to undo NFZ-like hacks. Conversations in an online forum where pilots of DJI drones discuss mods said the mandatory firmware update can potentially wipe out such hacks, but there is no reported official word from DJI on this.

A YouTube video demonstrating a homemade drone where a handgun was fired remotely using actuators and able to stay stable at flight was published a few years back. Not much is known of the project and the maker of the device is yet to reply when reached out for comments, but as a proof of concept, the possibility of such a device being developed locally does not seem too far-fetched.

Apart from being fitted with guns, drones have also been used to carry drugs across the US border. Telegraph reported that over 13 pounds of methamphetamine, when being smuggled across the US-Mexico border using a drone was intercepted on August 8, and that this was not the first such drone lift.

This comes at a time when the FAA and other bodies are scrambling to enforce drone laws and regulations. Drone registration programmes are in the works in several countries and many have strict regulations on the use of drones in public spaces, but with the kind of workarounds that are available in the market, they might not always be fully effective.

Advancement in drone technology is inevitable and, according to a report by the Economist, military drone development suck in 90% of the spending in research. Drones have already changed warfare but bigger changes, it seems, are on the way.

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