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Why would scout robots be used for recon only, not general combat?

I have a situation in which scout robots akin to mars rovers are used for military applications by forces residing on a foreign planet (Mars) that operate out of colonies to keep civilians in line and exterminate raiders. these bots are equipped with imaging and video cameras, audio recorders, and a submachine gun-esque weapon chambered in 9mm. These autonomous (supervised) terrors would scutter around on six legs instead of wheels with solar panels for extended missions.

After the situation is evaluated, the scouts would de-activate and wait for human support, in the form of massive 12 wheeled armored tank-esque troop transports to arrive, clean up enemies, recover stolen goods and bring the autonomous scouts back to a colony.

Why would sending human soldiers be necessary to fight human raiders and outlaw bands, if the technological level is high enough to send combat-capable autonomous robots to fight instead?

keep in mind that the question is not "why is it necessary to send humans", but "why is it necessary for the humans to fight?"

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    $\begingroup$ Because they're named "scout robots"? There is a probably a good reason for it :) $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Dec 9, 2023 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Joachim The FV107 Scimitar is a scout vehicle... I promise you that its 30 mm and 7.62 mm can be quite the nuisance to an adversary. Just ask the Argentinians. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Dec 9, 2023 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelK Sure. But the question isn't "why can't scout robots be a nuisance?" So my hilarious joke still stands :) $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Dec 9, 2023 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Joachim Ever heard of the humour-concept "understatement"? A 30 mm auto cannon can seriously f... someone up, rendering them an acute case of death & destruction. And if we look to the FV 101 Scorpion, that scout vehicle came with a 76 mm cannon. So, while scout vehicles are primarily used for scouting, but they can also — if so equipped — deal out serious amounts of harm. OP's question is: why would they not be used as such, even when equipped for it. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Dec 9, 2023 at 21:29
  • $\begingroup$ are there gps on Mars already? $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Dec 10, 2023 at 9:56

16 Answers 16

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Some thoughts:

  • Weight

    The robot carry various scouting tools, mapping tools, surveillance tools etc. and these are all heavy. This means that it doesn't have the capacity to carry any extra dedicated targeting tools. Someone will probably point out that a surveillance optic and a targeting optic aren't entirely different - and to which I'd say - yes. However the surveillance optic whilst able to be used for targeting is a last-ditch effort option.

  • Range

    Not the range of the robot - 9mm out of a PCC is effective out to about 100-200 metres - one source said that they could land shots at 400 metres (but they didn't say how reliably they were able to hit). Bearing in mind - 400 metres represents the absolute max range. Most infantry would be armed with a Rifle in a Rifle calibre - if we take the venerable 5.56 - that is effective out to 400 metres and with the same tweaking that gets a 9mm to 400 metres, the 5.56 can be taken out to almost 1 km.

  • Armour

    See Weight - other posters have touched on this - but in order to make it practical in combat, would require more armour that would impede it's mobility.

  • Cost.

    Depending on your Militaries view, it might be better to send humans to die than Robots. In the West (and especially the US) - the Defense budget is such that sacrificing a multi-million dollar Remote-Controlled vehicle/Drone/UAV/Thing is almost always seen as preferable to letting a Human die.

    But... If you say have an excess of population, not too much money and not a whole lot of moral principals - send 10 penal combatants on a suicide mission, rather than risk an expensive and rare asset might be better.

  • Combat is dynamic

    One of the things Humans do exceptionally well is prediction and reaction. A Computer might be able to calculate all possible moves and may even have an algorithm to help rank-order them in terms of likelihood - but Humans still have an edge for this sort of thing. For example - when I was regularly motorcycling to work (and doing extensive lane-splitting) I would observe drivers doing the 'Lane change lean' - that is, in the middle of a multi-lane highway, someone that was thinking about changing lane would turn their head to look at the lane they wanted and they would, ever so slightly, drift towards that lane. Noticing this change in behavior more than once gave me an extra 1-2 seconds of reaction time.

Additionally:

  • Combat algorithms are too complex

    A scout algorithm of go here, look there, if threat identified - send help and if attacked point gun in general direction and scoot is relatively simple.

    However, a combat algorithm of identify lanes of assault, rank order target priority, mission objectives etc. etc. before a first shot is fired and then having to constantly update all of those as things happen is too complex/taxing for the scouts CPU to handle.

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    $\begingroup$ It could also be that the enemy has a habit of using hostages (population hate the enemy as much as the government), or can easily blend in with the population (the population support the enemy, and the government need a moral high ground so they could not start blasting everyone). So a human touch is still necessary to clear out the enemy, robot is not good enough for this purpose. $\endgroup$
    – Faito Dayo
    Dec 9, 2023 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ To play devil's advocate a little bit: It would be simple to manage drones with very basic computing power remotely. You could have human or AI commanders issue commands to very simple drones (Much like an RTS video game). The other parts of this answer provide possible reasons why a human/AI commander would not want to direct an army of drones. $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2023 at 19:30
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    $\begingroup$ @LoganKitchen - Remote signals can be jammed or traced back to a source ;) $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2023 at 19:39
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My comment was in jest, but actually contains an answer as well: these scout robots are not made for combat. And there is a huge range of reasons this might not be the case. A few broad examples:

  • Manoeuvrability has been favoured over armour and other defensive measures.
    These machines are fast and agile, but easily incapacitated. They are as light-weight as possible.
  • They carry mapping and scanning tools, rather than offensive weaponry.
    The one submachine gun can is used in the unlikely scenario the robot is being attacked and it can increase its survival chance by killing rather than avoiding its predator. (Naturally, knowing they carry guns will keep the unarmed in line.)

From a completely different perspective, there could be good reasons humans have to do the actual fighting:

  • Robotic combat is universally considered an act of terrorism.
    It's already hard to develop robots solely for combat and offense without anyone knowing, but to actually deploy them is even more difficult and considered terrorism.
    The reasons behind this will allow for some intriguing socio-political storytelling (involving a singular historical event, perhaps).
  • Robots can't always distinguish between Friend Or Foe.
    We are familiar with this concept, but there is simply not always a way to tell opposing forces apart, especially when everyone is wearing civilian clothing (this especially holds true during insurgencies an other rebellions). You need clear human communication and a direct and dynamic conceptualization of the "battle field" to attack or defend against an opposition.
  • This is about oppression, and humans are the vilest and crudest of all.
    No details necessary.
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    $\begingroup$ "Robotic combat is universally considered an act of terrorism." <- This. Modern wars are won and lost by politics. Robots might save you a couple of human lives on the front-end, but cost you trade agreements, alliances, membership in international organizations, and the support of your own people. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 21 at 15:58
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combat-capable autonomous robots

does not necessarily imply "human-level intelligence capable of dealing with all of the situations that may arise once the shooting has stopped". Human environments and human interactions are complex, and fully understanding them would need AGI and if you have human-equivalent AI with guns then All Bets Are Off anyway, so lets discard that idea for the moment.

High quality, low latency audio and video links over long distances are surprisingly awkward in the real world without having to operate in a war zone on a near-airless radiation-soaked rock where you can't necessarily rely on infrastructure to be there or functional, and in the absense of a troposphere or ionosphere and in the face of the possibility of cheap antisatellite rockets (low G! thin air! scifi space tech!) and ECM, radio links are always going to be unreliable and slow. Your scout bots may be supervised but the supervisors can't get a good handle on what is actually happening.

Robots go in first, but humans are needed to mop up and secure the area and handle prisoners and the wounded and captured equipment and work out exactly what happened and who was involved, because the robot supervisors may have little if any idea.

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Latency

Bots get commands, decrypt them, and then move, make telemetry and image data, encrypt them, and send the parcel back. Data is decrypted, then a human decides what to do next. As a result, all data from the frontline is at least 5 to 30 seconds old. By the time the operator sees the tank coming, the drone might be dead already, would it engage in hostilities. So, why arm up a drone with equipment to lose if your latency will lead to its loss? Ordering an attack to a drone with that much latency is suicidal.

So the autonomous drone is set up to dodge, hide, and evade on its own, and on a secondary level follow the location instructions by the human operators in the control bunker. Even if the imagery is still somewhat time-delayed, it is good enough to plan larger operations.

Prevent Robot Uprising

Arming up bots to the teeth does not just make them large and bulky, it makes people uneasy because they fear robot uprisings to murder humans. Teaching an AI to kill some humans and then expecting them to not kill some of them sounds terribly insecure to the general population.

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The enemy can easily hack them and make them switch side.

Losing a scout to an enemy is a rather little damage, compared with giving them a monster attack machine. Better send human soldiers, which in case of need can be "motivated" to commit suicide.

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    $\begingroup$ Number of modern drones captured by enemy forces: pretty low. Number of US citizens who have given classified political information and sensitive military secrets to China and Russia: somewhat higher. Meatbags are eminently hackable, and switch sides readily. $\endgroup$ Dec 9, 2023 at 11:28
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime No autonomous, armed land combat drones have been captured because none have been fielded. There are countless human-in-the-loop drone systems, and there are autonomous support drones designed to operate as part of a human infantry or armored unit, but nothing that is operating alone in the field for prolonged periods on its own as described in the question. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Dec 9, 2023 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime we are not in wartime, especially if you mention US citizens leaking data to elsewhere. It's espionage, nor warfare. Also NSA deals a tad more than US citizens in terms of gathered classified data turned over to those who shouldn't have it. Espionage/recon via drones is also full-scale already, the drones that do that are not armed tho. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Dec 9, 2023 at 17:27
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The first point is that nobody likes having killing robots around.

Civilians really hate the idea. A basic reason this society accepted robots was the concept that "A robot will never harm a human being". As such, creating a robot that kills people would cause an uproar.

The military are more open to the idea of robots that kill people… as long as they are not their own people. That would be unacceptable.

You can hardly look more dumb than making a killing robot that then proceeds to kill your own troops. Plus, nobody would like the remote possibility of being among those.

However, no matter how you make the robots, there will be errors. You would need to teach them which people are ok to kill and which are not. And such robots would occasionally fail to notice the cues telling them that someone is a friend. (Not to mention that establishing the difference of friends vs foes will not be simple at all, since the enemy will logically try to look as an ally in front of the robot)

Then, in addition to the inevitable "mistakes" by the robot soldiers, there is the risk of sabotage. You bring your killer robot back to the base after an operation, just to discover that it got reprogrammed to start a killing spree on arrival. How could you trust that piece of metal with guns?

The second point is one of responsibility.

If a soldier kills someone, you blame the soldier. If a robot kills someone they shouldn't… who takes the blame? The company manufacturing them will not. Nor will those programming it. The blame (and target of legal proceedings) would probably fell on those that decided it was ok to produce slaying robots, along those choosing to deploy them on an operation, which means nobody really wants to take such a decision.

And it's bad as well when they work. If your troops protect a colony from raiders, they are heroes. If you just deployed some robots that did everything, the army gets much less prestige. So, even with no malfunctions, the army is interested in that attacks are only carried by people. It's such an important quest that it must be done by a man.

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    $\begingroup$ But nobody gives a shit about what civilians think on this planet. And as soon as one NK goes for it, all others have to follow to keep up with the pariah? $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Dec 12, 2023 at 11:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Pica But humans on other planets will care. The people of Earth may not care if you wipe out some terrorists on Mars, but when social media explodes with reports of a government deploying killer robots, there could be a major political backlash, UN prosecutions, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Feb 21 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ Just desensitize the people. Report on it daily. Make it just a normal background occurance. SkyNet on SkyNews 24/7, till nobody can even hear the word anymore $\endgroup$
    – Pica
    Feb 21 at 16:01
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The governing Computer Council has put forth an edict that only humans will be sent into combat against human soldiers, so as to preserve the loss of robot life since human can heal and self-replicate, but robots cannot. Precious robot life cannot be so needlessly wasted. Humans should sort out problems caused by others of their own kind with their own hands.

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Let's start by considering a spy-bot in the form of a quadcopter drone. Its job is to move a camera and transmitter around. Right now, you can do this with a reasonable amount of autonomous intelligence in a package about the size and weight of cell phone. 200 grams, including the batteries, motors, and electronics.

Now consider a gun. Not even a huge gun. Let's consider a .22 caliber pistol. Just the pistol and a firing mechanism weighs in at almost half a kilo. The electronics won't add much to that, but you'll need that much again for motors and batteries. Let's call this a 1kg package that gets you half a dozen shots. This disparity only gets worse with higher tech levels.

Consider loiter time. The ability to hang out and wait for something to happen is very important in the drone business. If you're keeping a gun aloft, then your loiter time drops significantly. You can have both with a much larger vehicle, but that only works if your drones have a huge field of view, as with Raptors. If they're anywhere near the ground, you lose that.

Consider numbers. Don't ask yourself "is a spybot with a gun better than a spybot." Ask yourself "is a spybot with a gun better than a dozen spybots."

Now that you're thinking in terms of numbers, think of how much effort it would take your opponent to take down a dozen spybots that are smaller and harder to see. You could take out a weaponized quadcopter with a shotgun. You could fire a shotgun into a cloud of spybots and you'd be lucky to get half of them.

All of this changes when you shift to something with legs. Comparatively speaking, legs add a lot more weight, but also increase carrying capacity. At that point, you'd have to make something a hopper like a frog or a flea for it to be effective as a spybot. On the other hand, you could make a walking/hopping gun networked with a half dozen spybot sub-drones and have a versatile and cheap combat unit.

So, to reiterate, don't think this or that, think this and that, in the proper proportions.

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Scouts are specialized functions. You program the scout to do that and nothing else. This produces a robot that is very poorly suited to do anything else.

So why not make a specialized battle bot? Or rather, dozens of kinds? Because a soldier in battle may do all sorts of things. One might be artillery, one infantry, one sniper. It is not feasible to program a bot to do all of these, but while a human can specialize, it is feasible for a soldier to have a smattering of skills from other specialties, and also to pick them up on the fly. (A sailor at Pearl Harbor manned one of the guns despite having training as a cook.) Consequently, an army of soldiers is much smaller than one of bots.

Furthermore, soldiers have better judgment than bots. If a scout is destroyed through bad judgment, it's just a cheap bot. Soldier bots will lose you the battle.

Not to mention the horrific incident where bots were programmed to distinguish civilians from soldiers by their uniform. When they were attacked by civilians, they not only killed the civilians attacking (who were, technically, war criminals) but many others who were wearing the same thing. No one will trust a bot to learn on the battlefield what a uniform is. BUT that means an opposing force can defeat them by disguising that they are the opposing force. Pattern matching makes it impossible for a bot to reliably distinguish.

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If you make fighting robots which are 100% autonomous, getting offed by them will be a matter of time.

Humans are needed because humans call the shots. The day humans stop calling the shots is the day humanity gets shot in the back.

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    $\begingroup$ Which then leads the scenario in my answer. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Dec 9, 2023 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ Wasn’t there a movie series with such a premise? It somehow rings a bell… :-P $\endgroup$
    – breversa
    Dec 11, 2023 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ @breversa I believe it was called Wall-E. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Dec 11, 2023 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ @breversa Netflix bought the rights to Horizon, so that one will become a series soon. $\endgroup$ Dec 12, 2023 at 2:04
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking of Terminator, obviously… $\endgroup$
    – breversa
    Dec 12, 2023 at 13:20
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Poor Replaceability

The Scout-bots aren't exactly cheap, all those rare-earth metals in their leg-servos and sensors and other expensive parts mean that they're not disposable for a civilisation operating in frontier conditions on Mars. They're built using equipment imported from Earth, which is a hell of a supply-chain.

So they're armed with a gun for self-defence, but their best defence is to never get into a fight in the first place.

Instead, they park up and provide data for the much more replaceable soldiers and robust ground-vehicles used by the main military forces.

You could feasibly build autonomous soldiers (perhaps they do back on earth!) but they'd be hard to replace if destroyed, and when it comes down to it, it's easier to show up with a dozen soldiers in a massive armoured tank.

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While sending robotic scouts with lethal capabilities has advantages, here are some reasons why humans might still be required for the final confrontation: Decision-making and adaptability: While your robots may have advanced sensors and some autonomy, complex ethical and tactical decisions might be beyond their programming. Humans excel at adapting to unforeseen circumstances and applying judgment in nuanced situations. Close-quarters combat: Robots with six legs might offer good maneuverability, but navigating tight spaces and engaging in close-quarters combat might be more efficient for bipedal humans. Additionally, melee weapons or improvised tactics might not be effectively countered by robotic algorithms. Psychological impact: The intimidating presence of armed human soldiers can offer a strong deterrent and demoralize enemies, while robots might be seen as impersonal targets or even underestimated.

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Scouting implements are expensive and fragile. When push comes to shove the robot can defend itself, but it's risky and looks pretty bad on cost-benefit analysis to use the scout robots as fighting robots.

Not every situation can or should be solved by killing all opponents. Maybe they have hostages or fragile cargo, maybe they can be negotiated with, maybe there's some intel that can- or has to be recovered. Scout robot frame cannot handle the power draw for an AI capable of making these decisions, but humans are perfectly capable.

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Two reasons immediately come to mind:

First, as others have mentioned, there could be laws or mores in place to restrict this use. This is relatively simple to justify to a reader, but doesn't answer why they can't.

Second, touched on by a few answers: combat is horribly complex, and they really can't conduct combat reliably. Drones which can traverse difficult terrain, pathfind, coordinate search patterns, and identify things which might be of interest to human oversight are quite feasible even with near-modern technology. Autonomous maid robots which are capable of "tidying up a room" are presently a pipe dream - even with plenty of time to think. Effective combat is more complex (facing an adaptive and intelligent adversary) and requires rapid decisions.

So, just one of the simple problems in combat: vision. Vision must be interpreted and reacted on within split seconds - something humans are quite capable of. If you would like your scout drones to not fire on friendlies, they need to be able to operate at at least the human level. This is far beyond detecting things of potential interest. And of course, as another commentator mentioned, knowing when to stop hostilities...

As another answer noted: cost and resources. You decide to solve the vision thing by adding some really beefy computer processors to your drone, mobility with very high rotation speed joints, etc... Might as well add a bit more ammo while you're at it, some armor plating to protect the resource expenditure... Maybe a bigger gun... You've recreated a tank (or a Bolo). It's great at fighting, but what you really wanted was a semi-expendable autonomous scout unit which could detect and report back potential issues. You already have tanks.

And so, the design is purposefully limited such that you can send these out to identify where to send the tanks. Yes, you could probably use them to conduct minor sabotage via their point defense weapon, possibly at the risk of loss of both the scouting unit and the element of surprise, but that's not where their chief value lies. And in general combat they're a liability if they have even a relatively small chance of shooting friendlies, so they'd better lie down and not participate.

You could possibly use the scout drone or a similar relative with more carrying/dragging capacity to deliver a bomb, though that'd probably be too slow in many situations compared to sending out the tanks and troops with mortars.

TL;DR: Humans are extremely intelligent and adaptable relative to anything else we can find or build, and those qualities are essential in combat. Scout drones have their place, but general combat is not that place.

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The robots are tiny

The enemy have powerful anti-robot countermeasures, (EMP weapons or what have you). So our heroes have found the best way of maintaining stealth is for the robots themselves to be very small. Maybe as small as a spider that can crawl about undetected, and fit through tiny gaps in the enemy's defenses. There's enough room for the electronics, cameras, etc. but not enough for weapons, let alone ammunition.

If you have to keep the small 9mm gun, then maybe make it a bit bigger, but still only capable of carrying a small number of bullets (like a single clip or even less) and the gun mechanism itself. This is considered a kind of 'last resort' or emergency measure as the robot would have great difficulty withstanding the recoil of the shot.

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Scouts are using themselves up to propell themselves. Basically a scout is a camera on a fuel stack circling - and they need energy to transmit, to function and to move. For that they consume there whole body over time, which is basically just chemical energy compressed into a shape. And once that reaction is started it can not be stopped. Your scout will move through his whole life- even if its just vibrating in place -and that life will be short, fast and eventfull.

As the whole body consists of volatiles- one small bump going wrong, even just a laser light strafe, will set it on fire, uncontrollably. It could be potentially used for assault, but on impact, it would just propell itself away again..

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