Russia is deploying demining robots to Ukraine, but they have problems

But they have issues.
Christopher McFadden

Robots are clearing paths of potential bombs behind the front lines of the war in Ukraine. Mine clearing is very dangerous and, of course, incredibly boring, so employing robots to the task helps solve many problems in one fell swoop. 

This kind of activity is critical for the safe passage of people and vehicles and appears to be limited to places where Russia believes it can operate securely, underscoring the limitations of short-range remote piloting for robots in combat.

To do this, the Russians have deployed their Uran-6, a remotely piloted tracked robot. In Syria, Russian soldiers utilized the Uran-6 demining robots to eliminate roadside bombs.

An Uran-6 can be seen traveling along a dirt road in what is said to be a place outside Mariupol in occupied Ukraine in a video posted by Russia's Izvestia newspaper. This robot comes equipped with a large chain-flail cylinder in front of it that explodes as it passes over landmines, thereby knocking the mine out.

Mariupol, a Ukrainian city made famous by recent events, has been the scene of deadly warfare for nearly two months. It was cut off from other Ukrainian forces while Russian forces steadily surrounded and picked off its defenders - all while civilians were trapped in the crossfire.

On May 17, the last Ukrainian units in the city surrendered to Russia, and more published footage shows Uran-6 robots clearing the fortified beaches of Mariupol's Azov shore.

“Russian state media is showing Uran-6 work to demonstrate that the country’s military is using modern, sophisticated equipment,” Samuel Bendett, an analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, said in an interview

The Russian Uran-6 doesn't completely remove risk from demining operations

While this is interesting to see, it also seems to reveal a very important limitation of the robot. 

“We see limited Uran-6 UGV use since the operator has to be relatively close to the vehicle – no more than several hundred feet – and so Uran-6 is used when the Russian or Russia-allied forces have secured the area and there is no danger from Ukrainian attacks,” explains Bendett.

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Robot sweep demining can give some initial road safety, allowing forces to move across them with minimum risk. However, initial sweeps often overlook well-hidden or inconveniently placed devices, and clearing a region of explosives after the war can take years, if not decades. Parts of Ukraine, particularly the Russian-held Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, are expected to require considerable clearing for many years to come. 

Prior to Russia's three-prong invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Ukraine had been fighting to retake control of self-proclaimed separatist republics in the Donbas since 2014. In the continual state of conflict, both sides fired artillery and launched bombs across static defense lines, all while foreign observers tracked ceasefire violations. Some of the former front lines are now firmly in Russian territory, which means that any bombs fired by either side that are not carefully cleared constitute an ongoing threat to Russian forces.

“As the Russian forces continue their slow advance across the Ukrainian territory, it’s likely that the MOD [Ministry of Defense] will be showing additional Uran-6 uses in its promo videos,” said Bendett. “At the same time, there is plenty of evidence that the bulk of demining is actually done by human sappers, who have to conduct ‘old school’ on-foot identification and destruction of mines, munitions, and other [unexploded ordnance],” he added.

Mine-clearing is a labor-intensive and time-consuming task. Even when sweeping is done by robots like Uran-6, a human still directs and routes the robot. While this is a necessary chore for establishing secure operations on one's side of the line, uncleared areas might obstruct the flow of ammunition and other supplies to soldiers after an advance.

The areas where Uran-6 can be safely operated are shrinking as the conflict in Ukraine devolves to artillery and the effects of attrition. Because of the close proximity of the human operator to the mine-clearing robot, the human is vulnerable to hostile forces while the operator is protected from detonated landmines. Soldiers might be willing to risk a robot in the face of incoming artillery or rockets, but qualified system operators are unlikely to put themselves in any more danger than they already are.

“So despite Russian MOD’s talk of using a growing number of robotic systems to safeguard humans lives and make missions more effective – its main goal for military autonomy and AI – it will be a while before this technology is present in numbers large enough to phase out the sapper’s dangerous groundwork,” concluded Bendett.

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