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DARPA’s robot drivers could lead future raids…maybe

Logan Nye Avatar
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Late last year, DARPA released footage from its RACER program. Or call it the Robotic Autonomy in Complex Environments with Resiliency program, if you’re formal. Yup, it’s time for another DARPA robot, and this one races ATVs.

The premise is simple: DARPA is looking to deliver an autonomous driver that can pilot unmanned ground vehicles, even into combat.

(Wait, we’re not calling it that, right? UGVs? No. Wait, let me call my editor. Hold Music. I guess we can’t go with “Kit from Nightrider” every time, so we’re going to go with Batmobile.)

These Batmobiles could pull convoy duty, but they could also shift sensors and comms architecture around the battlefield or take troops into the fight and keep them supplied. But how likely are they to actually make it forward in time for Russia v. China v. NATO v. Alien Invaders?

The AIs that can’t get certified for deployment

If this all feels a bit familiar, well, it should. Scientists keep figuring out potentially useful robot and artificial intelligence technologies, but they never seem to go anywhere. The funniest part of RACER is probably that it’s being tested at Fort Irwin, the last stop for a lot of Army units scheduled for deployment. But DARPA robots and other AIs rarely make it past Fort Irwin (or wherever they were tested).

The Marine’s K-Max program was a rare success that served in Afghanistan for three years, with AI pilots delivering 4.5 million pounds of cargo. But the Marines also got rid of their robot dogs. Turns out they’re too noisy for real missions. The Navy pared back expectations for their first carrier drone and turned the MQ-25 into a refueler, not bomber or fighter.

The Air Force’s Loyal Wingman Program might create a great fighter at some point, but…. Oh, sorry, there’s a Collaborative Combat Aircraft competition now? Which is separate from the Skyborg program, apparently? And both of those have to compete with many, many other modernization programs just in the Air Force. At least Air Combat Evolution got an F-16 in the air. That’s something.

But at least robot drivers are proving themselves…right?

But hey, those are helicopters and fighter jets. These are just ground vehicles. AI fighter pilots have to defeat Jamie Foxx, Jessica Biel and the voice of Home Depot. By comparison, the Batmobile will have it easy. It just has to navigate dusty and rocky terrain. Likely in the dark. Potentially during raids or other missions conducted in blackout conditions. At speeds of 20 MPH including on steep grades.

That’s nothing for a vehicle that grew up in Gotham.

With seemingly every robot driving program from civilian companies folding up and getting out of town like the Peddler from Aladdin, it’s fair to ask whether RACER will be able to deliver a functioning Batmobile.

But, to be fair, if RACER doesn’t live up to the hype, the program could be quite useful. It would just be in a more limited role similar to, well, the Batmobile.

In the only Batman movie, the one with Michael Keaton eating soup at a comically long table with Kim Bassinger, Batman does most of the driving. He only tasks the AI when he needs something. Like to summon the car, put the shields up and down, or fire some weapons.

I’m sure most combat veterans can imagine some situations in which summoning a vehicle, getting cover fire while loading it, and then hopping in the driver’s seat would be useful. Just maybe demand that the manufacturer delivers Full-Self Driving before the DoD pays for it.