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They’re putting guns on robot dogs now

Quadrupedal robots are one of the most interesting developments in robotics in recent years. They’re small, nimble, and able to traverse environments that frustrate wheeled machines. So, of course, it was only a matter of time until someone put a gun on one.

The image above shows a quadrupedal robot — a Vision 60 unit built by US firm Ghost Robotics — that’s been equipped with a custom gun by small-arms specialists Sword International. It seems the gun itself (dubbed the SPUR or “special purpose unmanned rifle”) is designed to be fitted onto a variety of robotic platforms. It has a 30x optical zoom, thermal camera for targeting in the dark, and an effective range of 1,200 meters.

What’s not clear is whether or not Sword International or Ghost Robotics are currently selling this combination of gun and robot. But if they’re not, it seems they will be soon. As the marketing copy on Sword’s website boasts: “The SWORD Defense Systems SPUR is the future of unmanned weapon systems, and that future is now.”

The machine was shown off for the first time at the Association of the United States Army’s 2021 annual conference earlier this week. The conferences bills itself as a “landpower exposition and professional development forum” held in Washington DC, October 11-13.

Details about the partnership between Ghost and Sword are unclear, but Ghost’s quadrupedal robots are already being tested by the US military. Last year, the 325th Security Forces Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida became the first unit in the Department of Defense to use quadrupedal robots in regular operations. It uses them to patrol the base’s perimeter, navigating swampy areas that “aren’t desirable for human beings and vehicles,” according to an interview with Ghost Robotics CEO Jiren Parikh.

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Although reconnaissance is one of the most obvious use-cases for robot dogs, manufacturers are slowly experimenting with other payloads. As well as providing remote video and mapping, the machines could be used as mobile cell towers, to defuse bombs, or to detect chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear matter (otherwise known as CBRN).

And, of course, they can become weapons themselves.

Boston Dynamics, the best-known manufacturer of quadrupedal robots and makers of Spot, has a strict policy agains weaponizing its machines. Other manufacturers, it seems, aren’t so picky. After all, plenty of companies already sell uncrewed gun platforms that use tank treads or wheels, so adding the same basic kit to legged machines isn’t much of a stretch.

The bigger question is how these robots will be deployed in the future and what level of oversight will be required when they start firing lethal rounds at humans.

For a while now, experts have been warning about the slow rise in the use of “killer robots” (known as lethal autonomous weapon systems, or LAWS, in official jargon), and official US policy does not prohibit their development or deployment. Many groups are campaigning for a preemptive ban on such systems, but, in the meantime, it seems companies will continue to build what is possible. And that means putting guns on robot dogs.

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