A Brief History of Military Robots Including Autonomous Systems

Autonomous military systems have become an integral part of any modern army. Here is the story of their evolution with certain examples.
Christopher McFadden
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Autonomous military systems have been used by armed forces around the world for many decades. All of these can trace their past to as early as the First World War and their importance to the battlefields of the future is only set to grow exponentially.

But don't worry, too much yet, as many are used for non-lethal activities.

Today they can be found performing various combat roles from search and rescue, explosive disarmament, fire support, reconnaissance, logistics support and, of course, lethal combat duties to name but a few. Many believe we will see fully automated lethal autonomous systems in the near future potentially making the role of human soldier obsolete. 

Despite other fears of heralding in a post-apocalyptic nightmare like the Terminator Universe, it should be noted that many military vehicles with combat capability are prevented from being fully autonomous presently. This is by design to ensure there is some human input at times to ensure targets are not within restricted fire zones under the laws of war set out in the Geneva Convention

In the following article, we'll take a quick tour of the history of autonomous military systems (including remote controlled, semi- and fully-autonomous) and highlight some interesting examples. There is an enormous variety of autonomous military systems and, as such, it has not been possible to cover them all, sadly. 

autonomous military vehicles terminator
Could fully autonomous lethal systems be the end of humanity? Probably not, but time will tell. Source: TerminatorWiki

 Early History of autonomous military systems

Autonomous systems for the military, sometimes also called autonomous robots or remote-controlled drones, have had a surprisingly long and interesting history. Though they have come to prominence and large-scale use in recent years, their ancestors were first put to use during the First and Second World War and the Cold War that followed them.

Throughout WW1, various inventors devised small, remote-controlled and tracked, disposable explosive devices. One of the first as the French Crocodile Schneider Torpille Terrestre that sported a 40kg explosive charge. It even saw limited service in June of 2016 but proved unreliable.

In 1918 another similar device was patented by an American inventor, Elmer Wickershaw, called he Wickersham Land Torpedo but it never saw service. Aldolphe Kegresse also developed a similar device in the 1930's and it was this that the German's based there Goliath drone of WW2. 

Some early unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were designed and built during the First World War too. These early models were launched from a catapult and flown by radio.

The US Army also developed some aerial torpedoes, called the Kettering Bug, but these never saw active service. 

autonomous military vehicles Ketterin Bug
A prototype Kettering Bug. Source: US Air Force Museum/Wikimedia Commons

The Goliath was a diminutive, but deadly, remote-controlled German tracked mine that looked like a baby tank.  

Called the Leichter Ladungsträger Goliath (Goliath Light Charge Carrier) in German they came in two forms - electric motor and petrol engine driven. Nicknamed "Beetle Tanks" by the Allies, they proved to be very effective indeed. 

Each carried a 60 to 100 kg payload of high explosives and were employed for demolition activities and killing full-size allied tanks all controlled remotely.

Throughout the 1930's and 40's, the Soviet Army developed a full-size remote-controlled tank called the Teletank. These autonomous military vehicles first saw combat during the bitter fighting of the Winter War with Finland the subsequent combat of WW2. 

As the name suggests, these tanks were remote controlled by radio, at a distance of between 500 and 1500 meters. They were developed by the Soviet Army to help reduce combat risks to their troops. 

Autonomous military vehicles Goliath
WW2 German Goliath. Source: baku13/Wikimedia Commons

They came equipped with machine guns, flamethrowers, smoke canisters, with some equipped with 200-700 kg bombs that were deployed near enemy fortifications.

The British also developed a similar technology in 1941 by making a radio-controlled version of their Matilda Mk 2 infantry tank. Code-named "Black Prince" an order for 60 was given but later canceled and the cost of converting the transmission proved financially impracticable.

The rise of the Drone

Between the wars, various Airforces developed unmanned aircraft for use as target practice for their fighter corps. It is during this period that the term "drone" also appears after one such model, the de Havilland DH.82B "Queen Bee"

The United States Airforce also began experimenting with remote-controlled aircraft post-war. This included the record-breaking B-17 Flying Fortress drone that flew between Hllo Naval Air Station in Hawaii and the Muroc Army Airfield in 1946.

Drone development continued apace post-WW2 with some of the first used for aerial-reconnaissance during the Vietnam War. They also began to be used as decoys, missile launch platforms, and propaganda aerial distrubution.

autonomous military systems Queen Bee
deHavilland Queen Bee. Source: de Havilland Museum

During the 1960's, DARPA developed the "Shakey" unmanned ground vehicle (UGV). This robot consisted of a wheeled platform with a TV camera, sensors and computer guidance and navigations systems. 

DARPA subsequently developed a series of autonomous and semi-autonomous ground robots, often in conjunction with the U.S. Army. As part of the Strategic Computing Initiative,

In recent times many nations, notably NATO members, have begun to invest heavily in autonomous military systems. Most recently UAV's like the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper / Predator B and the British Watchkeeper now dominate military reconnaissance and targeted airstrikes in combat zones. 

There have also been interesting developments in autonomous artillery pieces like the "Dragon Fire II". This system automates loading and ballistics calculations enabling a 12-second fire support for armies. 

Today there are various applications of autonomous military systems in development and currently operational. They range from unmanned vehicles used for guard or sentry duties, explosive ordinance disposal, logistics, reconnaissance, ballistic weapon platforms and even for repairing ground conditions under fire, to name but a few.

autonomous military vehicles Gladiator
Gladiator Tactical UGV. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Military robot usage increased from 150 in 2005 to an astounding 5,000 by the year 2005 alone. Many of these were used to disarm over 1000 roadside bombs in Iraq. 

By 2013, the U.S. Army had purchased 7,000 such machines and 750 of which were destroyed in action. Militaries are currently developing robots outfitted with machine guns and grenade launchers that may replace soldiers.

Military autonomous systems are likely to grow in numbers and roles exponentially in the future as armies continue to develop and invest in this technology. Some military experts, like John Bassett, believes that not only will combat robots be a reality very soon but also that robots will outnumber actual service personnel in the U.S. Army by 2025. 

Examples of Autonomous Military Vehicles

The following are a selected list of some examples of fully automated and semi-automated military vehicles currently, in development or canceled programs. 

1. Ripsaw MS1

Status: In Development/Under review

Type: Autonomous tank

Ripsaw MS1 is currently under development by Howe and Howe Technologies. It is an unmanned light tank that was first developed in 2000 and is currently under review by the U.S. Army. 

autonomous military vehicles Ripsaw
Source: Robotics rodeo/Wikimedia Commons

2. DRDO Daksh

Status: Operational

Type: Support UGV

The DRDO Daksh is an all-electric, remotely controlled military robot specially designed to locate, handle and destroy hazardous objects. It is currently used by the Indian Army.

autonomous military vehicles DRDO
Source: Jjamwal/Wikimedia Commons

3. Goalkeeper CIWS

Status: Operational

Type: Autonomous ship defense system

The Goalkeeper (Phalanx) is a Dutch-built close-in weapon system (CIWS) that was first introduced in 1979. It is fully autonomous and provides short-range defense for against missiles, aircraft, and smaller vessels.

autonomous military systems CIWS
Source: Kwj2772/Wikimedia Commons

4. Guardium

Status: Operational

Type: Sentry UGV

Guardium was designed and built by G-NIUS, and is an Israeli unmanned UGV used to patrol the Gaza border. It can be used in either teleoperated or autonomous mode. Both modes do not demand human interaction for the vehicle to work.

autonomous military vehicles Guardium
Source: MathKnight/Wikimedia Commons

5. PackBot

Status: Operational

Type: Search and Rescue UGV

PackBot is a range of military robots, developed by iRobot - an international robotics company designed for search and rescue activities. Several thousand were deployed in Iraq and Afganistan and they were also used to search the debris at the World Trade Center in 2001 as well as the Fukushima Nuclear plant disaster.

autonomous military systems packbot
Source: David Monniaux/Wikimedia Commons


Status: Operational

Type: Semi-Autonomous firearm platform

Built by Foster-Miller, TALON is a series of remotely operated, semi-autonomous, tracked combat robot. They are specially designed for various roles from reconnaissance to engagement with the enemy. 

They can be outfitted with various small-fire arms.


Status: Cancelled

Type: Various depending on configuration

MULE (Multifunction Utility/Logistics and Equipment) vehicle was an autonomous UGV developed by Lockheed Martin for the US Army. It could be outfitted with various equipment but was canceled in 2011 as they were "too noisy for combat". 

autonomous military vehicles MULE
Source: Wikimedia Commons

8. Atlas

Status: In development

Type: Search and Rescue Bipedal UGV

Developed by Boston Dynamics, Atlas is a bipedal humanoid robot developed for DARPA. It stands at 1.8 meters tall and has been developed to perform a variety of search and rescue tasks. 

Autonomous military vehicles Atlas
Source: David Carrero Romero/Wikimedia Commons

9. Black Knight

Status: In development/Under review

Type: UGV Tank

"Black Knight", developed by BAE Systems, is an unmanned UGV. It weighs 12 tons and can be deployed from aircraft like the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. It ostensibly resembles a tank with a 30 mm, turret mounted gun and coaxial machine gun. 

It is currently under evaluation by the US Army. 

10. Protector USV

Status: Operational

Type: Unmanned patrol boat

The Protector is an unmanned surface vehicle (USV) 9-meter long boat armed with .50 caliber machine gun, 40 mm grenade launchers and 7.62 machine gun. It was developed by the Israeli Rafael Advanced Defense Systems to engage terrorist threats in the aftermath of the USS Cole attack in 2000.

It has been deployed by the Singapore Navy to support coalition forces in the Sea of Japan and was later deployed for anti-piracy duties in the Gulf of Aden.

autonomous military vehicles Protector
Source: Smuconlaw/Wikimedia Commons
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