Ukraine Prepares To Roll Out An Army Of Ground Robots

The D-21-11 is a new multipurpose Ukrainian robotic vehicle which can be fitted with a machine-gun … [+] turret.

Mykhailo Fedorov

This week Ukraine’s United24 announced on Twitter/X that multiple types of military ground robot were going into mass production. The organization, set up by the government to raise funds to help Ukraine, said that after a long selection procedure it would be purchasing hundreds of specialized robots for roles including combat, logistics, minelaying and mine clearance. Such robots have previously only been seen on a small scale and this may signal a major shift.

Ukraine has set the pace for drone warfare, using uncrewed systems as effective, low-cost alternatives to traditional crewed platforms. Ukraine may lack offensive airpower, but its one-way attack drones are wreaking havoc on Russia’s oil and gas facilities. Ukraine has little conventional naval power, but its fleet of drone boats has sunk numerous Russian warships and broken the naval blockade of Black Sea ports. Ukraine’s kamikaze FPVs are reshaping the battlefield. Ground robotics are more challenging than aerial drones, but Ukrainian engineers are finding creative solutions.

Uncrewed Ground Vehicles

Russian radio-controlled TT-26 Teletank from 1940

Public Domain

Military robots, invariably operated via remote control, are known as Uncrewed Ground Vehicles or UGVs. The type has a longer history than you might think, back to the Russian Teletanks which took part in the invasion of Finland in 1939-40. Teletanks were obsolete light tanks fitted with a crude radio-control system; there was no camera, so the operator had to be within sight of the tank. There were mainly armed with flamethrowers, the idea being that the Teletanks could attack fortifications which were too dangerous to approach otherwise. They were unreliable in action and the experiment was terminated after a few months.

In WWII German fielded the Goliath ‘tracked mine’, a miniature tank carrying 60 kilos / 132 pounds of explosive for a kamikaze attack. The Germans were wary of the radio interference and loss-of-signal issues that affected Teletanks, so the Goliath trailed a long remote-control wire. Several thousand were built, but again it was not effective, being slow, prone to get stuck, and the control wires were frequently broken leaving the vehicle stranded helplessly.

The U.S. military has experimented with armed UGVs for decades, but never used them in action; the SWORDS/Talon robot was sent to Iraq in 2008 but never used. The Russians fielded Uran-9 combat robots in Syria in 2018, but these performed poorly. Again, communication was a big challenge.

While aerial drones are ubiquitous on the batlefield, ground robots are making slow progress. The challenges of autonomous travel even along a well-marked road are significant compared to plotting a flightpath. While most drones can fly and even avoid obstacles on autopilot, self-driving cars are not at the same level and the safety of automated driving is still a big issue.

But technology is advancing fast. Ukraine was a hub for high-tech startups before the 2022 invasion and has considerable expertise in robotics and automation.

Brave 1

The robots came out of Ukraine’s Brave1 Cluster, a technology incubator which fosters collaborations between industry and the defence sector. Brave1 solicits new ideas and matches them up with potential investors and users. Brave1 say they have looked at some 140 UGV concepts, of which 50 have been tested in realistic combat conditions. Of these 14 have been approved.

“Our main goal is to minimize human participation on the battlefield,” Nataliia Kushnerska, Chief operating officer of Brave1, told the magazine Focus earlier this month. “This will preserve the lives and health of Ukrainian soldiers….Ground-based robotic systems will become the next game changer of this war. This is our asymmetrical response to the enemy’s numerical superiority.”

Few details have been revealed about what robots are being produced and what their role will be, but several previous releases give an idea and videos on social media also show the capabilities already deployed. These include one of a kamikaze UGV taking out a bridge with a demolition charge. In another video, a UGV drags a long chain of linked TM-62 anti-tank mines, to position them in the path of a Russian advance without the need to expose sappers to enemy fire.

Ratel-S kamikaze attack UGV with mortar bomb payload

Brave1

New Robot Army

In January , Mykhailo Fedorov, Minister for Digital transformation and drone supremo, unveiled the D-21-11 from Brave1. This is a rugged four-wheeled platform with a turret mounting a machinegun, described as suitable for reconnaissance, defensive and offensive operations. Without the turret it can act as a load carrier.

The Ratel S, first seen last October, is a smaller wheeled robot which can either lay anti-tank mines or act as a kamikaze. It has a silent electric motor and a range of more than three miles at a speed of up to 15 mph with a payload of up to 35 kilos / 77 pounds. The Ratel S has successfully been used in action and at least 50 were said to be in operation in October.

The larger Ratel M is a cargo carrier with a capacity of 250 kg/ 550 pounds which is also already in use bringing supplies to frontline positions. Videos show tests of this type of vehicle for casualty evacuation.

Not all the systems involved are robots in the traditional sense. One of the devices shown in the United24 statement is a remote-controlled machinegun. At least two such devices have been seen previously – the Sabre, seen in a video from last May where the operator uses a game controller, and Tarantula seen last November which saw action successfully. The new weapons looks like a significant upgrade, with what looks like an armored shell for the machinegun and compact, adjustable folding legs.

The Israeli Smash Hopper is a commercial version of this technology, but the point of United24 is to develop low-cost homegrown solutions. Back in 2021 we covered an attempted assassination in Ukraine with a remote-controlled assault rifle so the idea has some history.

A remote-controlled machinegun with video camera developed under Brave1

Brave1

Keeping It Simple

Russia’s Uran-9 combat robot, basically ten-ton tank the size of an SUV, has not appeared in this conflict. Russia’s Marker UGV, a three-ton vehicle often described as having advanced onboard AI and armed with anti-tank missiles, has been repeatedly shown in news footage getting ready to be used in Ukraine, but like SWORDS/Talon in Iraq, has never made it over the start line.

By comparison, Ukraine’s simple but effective UGVs are already in action, although on a small scale.

These machines are arguably not much more sophisticated than radio-controlled toys. The remote-controlled machinegun is the least sophisticated of all, a direct descendant of the improvised remote-fired guns of WWII which were aimed and fired with long cords. But simple weapons that work, and which can keep outnumbered Ukrainian troops away from the front line, are exactly what is needed.

A few hundred robots will not turn the tide. But the designs that work best will be followed by thousands more. As with Ukraine’s drone fleet which grew from small beginnings into a million-strong force, their combat UGVs may set the pace for future wars.

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