The US Navy made news this week by announcing a new type of autonomous robotic boat for protecting its fleet, but China is showing that it can play the same game, just on the land.
While the the US military has deployed over 12,000 unmanned ground systems in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as the iRobot Packbot and Foster Miller Talon, they have been remotely operated and mostly of small size. The only large vehicle types, such as the BAE Black Knight light tank, have been test systems, never deployed. Akin to the difference between a RC toy and a Google Car, autonomous vehicles differ from such remotely operated systems by using data from onboard sensors to navigate through off-road and urban terrain without human input. In the category of Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFV), the only American autonomous systems have been technology demonstrators like the National Robotics Engineering Center’s Crusher and Army Research Lab ‘s XUV, not based off of existing U.S. AFV chassis.
By contrast, the sudden variety of Chinese self driving AFVs is unprecedented in that they are based of of existing military platforms, in essence offering the possibility of turning current manned fighting vehicles into future unmanned ones. One autonomous AFV is based on the versatile ZSD-63 tracked APC, whose manned version first entered service in the PLA in the 1960s and has been armed with anti-tank missiles, mortars and auto cannons. The three LIDAR, radar, and video camera stations mounted on the front of the ZSD-63, around its crew hatches, would suggest that in contrast to civilian driverless vehicles like Google Car (which has one), military autonomous vehicles need more sensor data to fulfill recon and resupply missions, and possibly future combat and engineering missions.
Some of the other Chinese autonomous vehicles have less sensors. The QLL-05 (?) 4X4 recon AFV has two white sensor dome mounted in its rear seats, along with two video cameras on its front bumper, just above the headlights. A HMMVV Dongfeng EQ2050 (license built from American Motors!) has had its passenger and driven compartment cut off and sealed; presumably most of its sensors are intended to pop up from the trunk during operations. Finally, an unidentified airborne AFV chassis has bumper mounted front cameras and a central sensor mast.
These AFVs could have been modified simply for remote operations, though that possibility is rather unlikely. Given that China already has developed remotely operated robot prototypes for mineclearing similar to the iRobot Warrior, it would be of questionable benefit to transition that established technology onto this wide variety of vehicle sized AFVs. Also, the simplest remotely operated ground vehicles are usually equipped with just video cameras, as opposed to LIDAR and radar sensors.
Like U.S. Military plans, China is first likely to use autonomous ground vehicles for mine clearing, reconnaissance and resupply missions; besides the legal and policy issues, the limits of present day AI means that any weapons would likely require human permission…for now.