A remote control tank could be in the near future, but a killer robot tank is likely still many years away.
The future of the tank could be one that is controlled remotely, but experts agree that it could be years – even decades – before there are truly fully autonomous tanks, and even then the weapons systems will still be controlled by a human, not artificial intelligence.
When the tank was developed during the First World War it was to help break the stalemate that resulted from trench warfare, which produced static lines resulting in mass casualties. Yet, even in the armored beasts the tank's crew still faces numerous threats from ever more powerful anti-tank weapons. Thus the best way to ensure the crew's safety is to take them out of the tank.
The Russian Aramta T-14 could be among the first of such "autonomous" or self-driving tanks – but so far the automation falls short of a true "terminator" style weapon. It does feature a remotely operated turret, while the crew sits lower in the tank. The eventual goal for the Russian military is to remove the crew completely and have the tank controlled remotely but even that isn't exactly a fully autonomous fighting vehicle.
Similar efforts are also underway in the United States.
"The U.S. has already developed various autonomous and semi-autonomous land systems, which are undergoing further development," said John Hernandez, senior industry analyst for Aerospace, Defense & Security at Frost & Sullivan.
"One key program is the Army's Next Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV)," Hernandez told The National Interest. "Part of that program includes technology maturation initiatives for advanced lethality and accuracy systems for medium caliber weapons. Under those initiatives there is one particular project in the works titled the Advanced Targeting and Lethality System (ATLAS) that better describes some of Army's AI effort."
Hernandez noted the recently published FY2021 budget documents:
"The ATLAS effort, matures, integrates, and demonstrates novel algorithms and sensor enhancements in a Next Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) vehicle agnostic, robotic turret. It integrates autonomous, wide-area search sensors and gimbaled targeting sensors with real-time computer aided detection, recognition, and identification of threats for significantly decreased time to engagement. It integrates target acquisition with intelligent fire control system to demonstrate an end-to-end engagement system on NGCV platforms, and enable experimentation and soldier touch-points with robotic turret concepts."
The development of an autonomous tank follows the same lines as the development of a self-driving car. It isn't just a vehicle that can "think" but one that can understand its surroundings.
"The most important weapon is situational awareness, and there are AI-based tools to help a lot with this," Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland told ClearanceJobs last year. "Visualization, communication, simple planning, these all go together at squad level."
And even when we get to the point that a tank or other military vehicle could control itself by being autonomous that wouldn't likely include the weapons. Groups such as the Future of Life Institute have called upon a ban of autonomous weapons to prevent even the start of a global AI arms race.
However, the role of a remote-controlled or even semi-autonomous vehicle would be to reduce the need to put a human crew in harm's way.
"Bottom line is that the Army's focus is on developing smart weaponry that can automatically detect and assess threats giving the human controller enough time to react," added Frost & Sullivan's Hernandez. "We are still a long way (if ever) from completely releasing total control of lethal decisions from human control."
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.