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The U.S., China and Russia are in a big fight over small robots

Robot tank
Nerekhta military robot at the Army 2018 International Military and Technical Forum in Russia. Photo: Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images

While the U.S. military builds out a robot support force and debates how much autonomy those robots should be given, China and Russia seem to be having no such reservations.

Driving the news: "At stake is a contract worth almost half a billion dollars for 3,000 backpack-sized robots that can defuse bombs and scout enemy positions," the AP's Matt O'Brien reports.

  • "The Army’s immediate plans alone envision a new fleet of 5,000 ground robots of varying sizes and levels of autonomy. The Marines, Navy and Air Force are making similar investments."
  • "'My personal estimate is that robots will play a significant role in combat inside of a decade or a decade and a half,' the chief of the Army, Gen. Mark Milley, said in May."

Between the lines: "The big fight over small robots opens a window into the intersection of technology and national defense and shows how fear that China could surpass the U.S. drives even small tech startups to play geopolitics to outmaneuver rivals."

  • "It also raises questions about whether defense technology should be sourced solely to American companies to avoid the risk of tampering by foreign adversaries."
  • "Concerns that popular commercial drones made by Chinese company DJI could be vulnerable to spying led the Army to ban their use by soldiers in 2017."
  • "And in August, the Pentagon published a report that said China is conducting espionage to acquire foreign military technologies."
  • "At a December defense expo in Egypt, some U.S. firms spotted what they viewed as Chinese knock-offs of their robots."

What's next: "It will be a while... before any of these robots become fully autonomous."

  • But the "military could soon feel compelled to develop fully autonomous systems if rivals do the same. Or, as with drones, humans will still pull the trigger, but a far-away robot will lob the bombs."