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Ignoring the obvious questions regarding feasibility, let's assume that the army of a largely feudal world can choose to mount their heavy weapons (cannons, artillery, gatling guns, etc.) on magical machines which look like insectoids. These are magically autonomous, and so will follow orders without need for a driver, unless they run out of fuel.

The decidedly unmagical and uninsectoid infantry have small arms equivalent to those from our era: rifles, missiles, mortars, machine guns, etc.

Firstly, what are the advantages and disadvantages of these machines over wheeled or tracked alternatives?

Secondly, what insectoid species from our world would best fit the roles of mechanised weapons systems: tank, transport, artillery, anti-aircraft, etc.

Thirdly (bonus question), what unique combat roles may emerge within this combat environment? And what insectoid species would best fill each role?

EDIT: To clarify things, these machines cannot be given orders remotely. The soldiers must be physically near to issue an order, perhaps to the point they must touch the machine when they are telling it what to do. Otherwise the machine will default to the last orders and wait for help like a disciplined duckling. This is a deliberate design to force infantry and machines to be in close proximity, and to make drone warfare as we understand it impossible. Machines identify friend from foe with a child-like intelligence.

The machine's fuel is something like a magical oil-honey, which lasts for much longer than and provides much more energy than petrol. Like organic creatures, the machines do not simply stop working when they run out of fuel. If low on fuel they slow down until they fall over and fall "asleep". The fuel is created by magical-industrial processes and cannot be found in nature.

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    $\begingroup$ Various military and research groups around the world are already experimenting with walking robots with all numbers of legs (human like =2; cheetah-like=4, ant-like=6, spider-like=8). They have had success and failure and discovered pros and cons along the way (pro: can step over obstacles and terrain wheels can't roll over; cons: slower, way more complexity). It might help us to know what you already know about this, and what details you need filled in. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Aug 16 '16 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, and I almost forget the biggest con: easily defeated by teddy bears with rocks and sticks. $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Aug 16 '16 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ @cobaltduck Presume me sorely ignorant. I am aware of big dog and Boston Dynamics, but not much beyond the headlines. Also good reference there, took me a moment but I got it, haha. $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Aug 16 '16 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ What type of weapons are going on these giant spider bots? A major advantage to tracked vehicles is recoil is pretty much negated. A 6 legged spiderbot firing a heavy enough weapon might shoot itself back 50 feet every time it fires...or atleast push itself straight down and onto its belly. Can we get some description of 'heavy weapon for the insectiod bot'? $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Aug 16 '16 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Twelfth edited question: heavy weapons means cannons, artillery, gatling guns, etc. Lol @ tank sized beetles shooting an artillery and then rolling backwards. $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Aug 16 '16 at 23:01
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Ok, so others have already explained the benefits of the legs. Better suspension, maneuverability is very versatile (wheels move where they point - legs can move in multiple directions), stability is amazing on almost any terrain, and on most slopes the vehicle could level itself (for instance, walking forward down a hill, back legs bend, front legs extend). The suspension and leg movement allows for a lot of shock absorption from high-output artillery. The chassis can easily be raised and lowered by the legs as well, allowing for more varying aiming angles.

Of course, wheels would probably use less energy, and a bunch of turning shafts is much simpler than a complex leg system. Also, it's important to note that although insects are extremely powerful, a giant one (even a magic giant insect) will probably not scale to the same strength.

Ok, now the fun part, insects to use for vehicles (prepare for pictures).

First, scout/assault - the fastest insect, and the fastest animal on the planet (by size to speed) is the tiger beetle.

enter image description here

This is a predatory beetle, that are not only relatively proficient flyers, but can reach speeds of 9km/h (5.6m/h for you imperials) which equates to around 125 body lengths per second (it doesn't take much to realise how fast that is). This beetle actually runs so fast, that while sprinting its eyes can't process its environment fast enough and it goes blind.

Now, that blindness might seem bad, but this is a 1000x scaled magical tiger beetle, so not only will it probably be slower (but still insanely fast) but its eyes will probably be like high speed cameras. Their role could be small scouts, or they could be fast assault vehicles - sprinting up to the enemy with thorax mounted guns (close range makes me think giant shotguns, but they could be small anti-personnel smgs) and actually jump at the enemy vehicles and tear them apart with their jaws and guns.

Next up, carriers, artillery and tanks. Simple enough, just choose the insect with the strongest carrying power. For that, I chose Onthophagus taurus, a dung beetle. enter image description here

First off, aesthetics, it has horns, that's intimidating. Secondly, the natural scale creature can pull 1140 times their body weight, if that can't carry heavy artillery and/or smaller units, I don't know what will. Again, scaling up the beetle won't be very forgiving to it's strength, but using powerful machinery and magic will take most of the power with it in the scale up. These things are bulky, so plenty of room for gun-mounts, and being a beetle their exoskeleton is the strongest of any type of insect (that i know of). If you want a really intimidating tank, maybe choose a stag beetle (which are also scarabs and are also very strong) because they have those giant mandibles. the Rule of Cool is always valid.

Now, air units (you didn't mention them but still) someone else mentioned dragonflies? I agree, they are amazing creatures, masters of flight, but I think they are a little to big a target for AA units, and that long abdomen seems fragile. My suggestion is a very similar predator, the robber fly. enter image description here

Already we see improvements, smaller frame, smaller wings, a more aerodynamic shape (air resistance may not affect dragonflies too much, but when they're scaled a few thousand times it becomes a problem). Now for facts, these things are fast, agile and, like dragonflies, they can take down targets in midair. They take down wasps and spiders from their webs for goodness sake. Again, small typical aircraft weaponry (maybe the odd missile). They also have a poisonous bite (through their spear-like proboscis), which is less useful against vehicles, unless of course you replace a stream of venom with a stream of small explosives (just a fun addition, I just like the sound of robber-mech quickly piercing a dung beetle tank and then flying away as it explodes from the inside).

Alright, I'm almost done. two last points. swarms, a lot of people are suggesting ant armies. I think this is a great idea, but I would choose termites, as they have a more diverse cast system, smaller working termites (scout/medic), large defensive termites with giant mandibles (tanks and artillery), and one cast has an acid shooting cannon for a head, it's already artillery without strapping guns to it.

And for one last suggestion for artillery units, which I didn't include because it isn't actually an insect. I won't go into detail, google velvet worm, and you'll find a many-legged worm with two tubes on the sides of its head, these shoot a sticky silk/mucus stream thing that traps their prey/predators. this is useful in giant-mecha-battle, but you could also simply replace goop-launchers with heavy artillery.

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The vehicles would probably have better suspension and stabilization effects then wheeled or tracked counterparts.
Consider having six independently articulating shock absorbers. And the fact that these would more than likely absorb said shock in different parts of the legs i.e the joints of the leg.
As for stabilizing the vehicles when firing, just look at the "legs" heavy cranes extend to stop them from falling over. Combine this with a lower center of gravity, as very few crawling insects I am familiar with have their legs directly under them, they would be able to carry heavier caliber weapons on relatively smaller chassis.

Less loss of human life.
Just look at today's military advancements. UAV's, drones, bomb disposable robots, etc. They are all being developed to remove us from the front lines. A consideration is if the enemy have such technologies do you need soldiers equipped with weapons or just with a lot of armor to traverse the battlefield and refuel the war machines?

Who does what?
Immediately ants come to mind. A swarm with a collective intelligence, and varied design, even within a single colony. Workers doing support tasks such as clearing debris or scouting a path, then the soldiers providing the heavy weapon support, finally a queen which is the platform to coordinate the assault from.
Beatles strike me as the tank. Look at the clone wars AT-TE
In the air then you have dragonflies.
One of the best fliers in the insect world, capable of vertical movement as well as forward and backwards. (Highly suggest checking out some high speed footage of them) To boot they are also predatory and pull other fliers out of the air.

I couldn't pinpoint the likes of transportation as it is not really something insects would be known for. But alot of their forms could be adapted for such, the thorax for example, which is the bulbous part at the back if hollow could be used for freight or troop transport.

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    $\begingroup$ This was just off the top of my head. Citation needed for a lot of it, especially if you want it to conform to our technological level. . . $\endgroup$ – Kalcipher23 Aug 16 '16 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ Good points, also see my edit to clarify how they take orders. $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Aug 16 '16 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ The insect is basically a giant ATV at this point, you can also draw some inspiration on how one might look like through one of those robot building games with walkers and their characteristic movement. $\endgroup$ – Skye Aug 17 '16 at 12:00
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I first wanted to ask this with a comment, but it may contain part of an answer to your question. But first, there is the question I wanted to ask with said abandoned comment:

So, how does the vehicle-combat work in your world?

May sound dumb in first place, but note that the general doctrines may say: "We charge the enemy with blazing guns", or "the one who hits first will win" or "the one who can take the most hits without fainting wins"... okay, these are more medieval doctrines, applicable to armies marching against each other and engaging in open field battles; consider the good old armored spearhead and stuff like elastic defenses, rolling artillery barges and so on for a modern thinking army.

Now why am I bringing up this? Because the design goals may greatly differ from "clashing each other until one side retreats" to "exploit a weak spot in their defenses and cut off reinforcement". First one would ask for slow but sturdy constructs which know how to fight in tight formation while staying in the generals line of sight, while the last one will call for highly mobile units that can operate at their own even beyond visual range of each other.

Pondering this topic for some time, I would go this far that your magic bug tanks seems to be more suited for the first one, while tracked vehicles would be more suited for the second task.

More thinks to think off: vehicle emissions and signatures (heat and noise); will armies in your universe use guided weapons (while they may use magic instead of computers for task like this), are smoke-screens a proper way to break the line of sight or can the magic look through (and is there magic to counter the look-through?). How the airforce may come into battle? Giant fireflies? You will face a humble speed and lift-limit if you are going for bug-like flight instead of the aerodynamic way of the mundane planes. Which isn't a bad thing, after all chopper and other forms of gunships are slow but hard to take down while packing a hell(fire) of a punch.

What about the ballistic weapons accuracy? Observe latest Russian tanks, which are pretty flat. As an Armed Assault player I can attest: that is pretty nasty. Sitting in you Abrams and watching shells glancing away at these nasty little turrets is the worst thing that can happen in that case. But a bug-like vehicle, while having great ground clearance, will offer a wider cross-section. Wait, that isn't true: you can glue an incredible flat body at the legs. Still, when this thing wants to carry a proper weapon, there might be a limit. The firepower-height award will stay at the tanks side.

Even the commonly used building materials and designs will go a long way to provide an important insight on how stuff might work. I'm talking about military installations. Its a feudal world, but this does not mean everyone lives in a castle. Do they deploy WW2 like bunkers or not?

Equally interesting: what are the firing distances your weapons do work best at? Or their maximum reach. Will artillery be more like in the medieval time, or do you work with firing tables, artillery spotter and counter battery fire? Muzzle velocity (and accuracy, as stated above) is interesting, and of course the stuff your bug-tanks are made off. 60tons of bug shall not pass a single bridge, but may wander through rivers unimpressed (as long as it does not cave in), but 60 tons of bug-tank can either be a incredible well armored shell or a huge transport like unit... or behave like an armored train. of course, if you can have a dozen 60cm mortars with high mobility (the Karl Granatwurfgerät wasn't pretty mobile for example), no fortification would suffice to protect. If you bring enough shells, even a mountain will fall.

How big are operative ranges, how far a bug-tank should be able to walk with one full fuel storage whatever? How far a campaign will be driven before the supply falls behind? How likely is the option to fix such a bug-tank in the battlefield, or after the battle? Will they "die" if hit badly, or will the magic fly out, leaving behind an empty machine shell?

Speaking of magic - are there any means to "harden" your bug-tanks to avoid having the enemy using exorcists freeing your bug-tanks of their magic soul (if it work this way), or can they be taken over due to magic means, can you employ ban-circles on the battlefield to trap these guys, can you... infuse them with a demon to make them run amok?

And so on. After all I should do real work here :D

And again, the question from the beginning, I asked several other people here which asked something like you (sadly most just kept ignoring this): How does the combat work in your world?

If you answer this, a better vision of how the bug-like vehicles would perform could be made. Everything else is comparing known features of walker-bots with tracked vehicles, which has been done way to many times with the conclusions the other answers already offer: fine in heavy terrain, bad at running, worst in cross-section and maintenance of propulsion system.

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  • $\begingroup$ That was a thought provoking series of questions! I shall have to give this some thought, as you say; it's all very well to hypothesise this or that, but without knowing how combat will be, our ideas aren't grounded in the correct context. $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Aug 18 '16 at 12:00
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This answer is in the 'why not' range...no clue how feasible any of this is.

"what insectoid species from our world would best fit the roles of mechanised weapons systems: tank, transport, artillery, anti-aircraft, etc" from someone who can demonstrate knowledge of insectoid species and (bio?) engineering principles.

I'd assume 'swarm' attack tactics if we are going the insect route...they aren't manned and therefore losses are semi-acceptable.

Insect locomotion is going to be the big consideration here. One of your primary attributes of a tank is that it needs to take a hit and as such a tank is going to be heavily armoured. It's locomotion method on tracks allows it to support the heavy heavy armour. When we are speaking insect terms, the locomotion is on legs and this heavy armour option isn't really there. So we are going to go the heavy redundancy method instead...makes them more fun in a story sense too.

I'd replace the 'tank' with an army ant style vehicle, with the notable exception of more legs than an ant would have, and we are going to focus on redundancy. A 8 legged creature could feasibly lose half of it's legs and still be mobile...perhaps not as mobile as it could be, but considerably better off than a tank thats lost half of it's treads (at that point it's basically immobilized)..I'd actually aim for 12 legs with this in mind. It would have the three segments an ant normally has...the front 'head' component would be the sensors along with an anti-personal weapon, most likely a machine gun of some form. It's middle torso would house the engine, along with the mount of a heavier anti-armour weapon (cannon). It's back end would be a redundant engine, redundant sensors, bracing (think of a bulldozer end facing backwards), and another anti-personal weapon (grenade launcher maybe?). To compensate for the main weapons recoil, the ant would brace itself using this bulldozer end prior to firing (ya, I'm suggesting the ant crouches down to fire).

The key tactic here is numbers and redundancy. Any ant should be able to take a shot and still be mostly combat functional. A leg gone won't impact mobility sharply, the front segment lost means the backup sensors in the back take over, the middle segment lost would mean the back segment is now the only engine, etc. When attacking, these ant rely on their numbers and ability to compensate for damage to push forward.

A second smaller ant could also make an appearance for in-battle repairs...removing the 1 or 2 working legs from fully destroyed units and reattaching them to damaged ones. A downed ant with a functional back segment could be combined with a downed ant missing it's back segment to create a 'frankenstiened' army ant for the rest of the battle. Their task is simply to make the most out of the damaged and destroyed resources during the battle.

I would also suggest the army ant here could be outfitted for a few different functions and specialized a little. A smaller faster version could only have anti-personal weapons and specialize in going into underground areas or into buildings in search of squishy targets, while a much larger one could have additional bracing and be carrying a much larger anti-armour cannon.

For artillery (direct 'anti tank' fire and indirect fire) would fit a scorpions frame well. A narrow but wide profile with slanted armour hoping to deflect incoming attacks, along with a weapon mounted in the back (where it's tail would be). Instead of front facing claws, it would have pistons/pylons that brace itself when firing it's primary weapon.

The scorpion above would find itself a prime target for air assaults...your anti-air pieces would more resemble a grasshopper...a long narrow profile from above, with anti air weapons (preferably multiple) facing upwards from it's back. If it could, the ability to 'jump' like a grasshopper could mean it has a method of avoiding incoming airstrikes as well...but most likely it'll have lil tiny legs for motion...anti-air doesn't need to turn very often afterall.

Another anti-air option is a 'wasp' like creature...or bee if you prefer. More of a missile on wings, this suicidal creatures defence is to slam itself into enemy aircraft destroying itself and it's target in the same explosion.

My choice for troop transport would functionally be a centipede, however each segment of this centipede would be self sustaining and could detach/reattach to the larger whole as required. Damage from taking a hit would be minimized as the damaged section would be detached and then dropped off so the main whole could continue forward.

I'd use a much smaller and closer to the ground 'beetle' like creature for scouting...a mix of hiding and painting targets is really it's only value.

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Well for one thing legs I have a lot more balance than tracks and wheels do over rough terrain. Your magical steel walkers could go a lot of places that tanks and trucks could not.

(Question edited to prevent this) In addition to this since they are autonomous you won't have to deal with human casualties and they can be sent in a lot of places that would be too dangerous to send humans.

There is however a problem with speed. We don't know how fast your Walkers move. It's possible that trucks and tanks could move faster. We would need more information but what type of magic is involved and what it does.

Another obvious advantages of course fuel since your magic honey fuel, if it give more energy than petrol and if it's probably more available the energy cost of your magical insectoid walkers then the would have a great advantage over the other side's trucks and tanks.

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    $\begingroup$ Good points, I have edited the question! $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Aug 16 '16 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ «your magic honey Samsung if I had» that is too garbled for me to fix. What?! $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 30 '16 at 12:37
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Insects sound like a great idea until the point where you scale them up; then they have problems.

Problem 1:

Complexity. The wheels on the bus go round and round. The legs on the spiderbot have to go forwards and backwards, up and down in a relatively complex motion to get movement.

Problem 2:

Spreading your weight. Tank tracks are wide and spread the weight of your heavy vehicle (relatively) evenly over quite a large area. Even an 6×6 truck spreads its weight a lot. Your spiderbot, even with 8 rather than the 6 legs of an insectbot is going to be spending a fair amount of time with legs off the ground and hence its weight focused on a small area. It's really going to struggle on soft ground.

However they also have advantages:

Advantage 1:

Hard very rough ground, mountains and boulderfields, ruined urban environments, trenches and walls. Legs are going to have a real advantage here where wheels and tracks start to suffer. Wheels like to be on the ground all the time and if that can't be done they start spinning uselessly.

Advantage 2:

Stability and Self righting. An insect bot is going to have a lot more degrees of movement along with greater stability. Its base will be a lot wider than its body, unlike a wheeled vehicle. This freedom of movement should also allow it to self right should it be capsized in the field.

Advantage 3:

Less risk of hitting mines. Wheels and tracks have continuous ground coverage, if there's a mine in the track you're going to hit it. Legs have a reasonable chance of stepping over it without triggering it.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the points about soft ground and mines, and self righting! It makes me think that different machine designs could be used for different terrain. For example, a millipede would have considerably more weight spread across more legs which are on the ground more of the time than your average beetle. $\endgroup$ – inappropriateCode Aug 18 '16 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ @inappropriateCode, a millipede would have considerable use in scaling fortifications and crossing rivers, even if it was only knee high and a couple of feet wide in the body. If nothing else, the troops could use them as mobile bridges and ladders. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 18 '16 at 12:38

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