Let’s say you have two countries that have been fighting for over six decades – what’s the best way to stem the loss of life from fighting? Robots of course!
Using academic and industrial resources, South Korea created a robot to patrol areas of the demilitarized zone between its border and North Korea. Why did they decide to go the robotic route, what can these robots do, and are there any safety issues that come along with a machine gun toting robot?
Violence at the DMZ
The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a 250 kilometer long, 4 kilometer wide “buffer” between North Korea and South Korea. The midpoint of the DMZ, the Military Demarcation Line, is the original front line from the days of the Korean War. Once the truce between North and South Korea brought an end to hostilities, each country agreed to retreat two kilometers in order to decrease the amount of border skirmishes.
The DMZ is a modern-day No Man’s Land. According to the U.S. State Department, the zone is the most heavily militarized border on the planet according the U.S. State Department due to the amount of manpower both North and South Korea expend in defending their individual sides. Less than two hundred people live within the zone, villagers descending from the original inhabits of Tae Sung Dong prior to the creation of the buffer between the countries. These villagers are protected by a small detachment of United Nations personnel.
The lack of human interference over a 1000 square kilometer area has unintentionally wildlife preserve within the buffer zone, with goats, bears, and deadly Siberian tigers roaming free in the area.
The length of the DMZ creates a massive drain on South Korean personnel, with the demilitarized zone often blamed for the mandatory 21 to 36 month period of military service placed on male and female citizens of South Korea. Despite the presence of thousands of soldiers, border skirmishes continue to occur. Due to the strange nature of the DMZ, any human spotted is an enemy target. At least 30 violent incidents have occurred within Korean Demilitarized Zone since its inception in 1953, with hundreds killed.
A Robotic answer?
The issues of manpower, a need for a constant military presence, and a heightened fear of a nuclear North Korea led Seoul’s Korean University to create an automated attack robot capable of exerting military force within the DMZ. The university chose an interesting partner to help create this robot – Samsung. Samsung is better known in North America for its laptops, LED televisions, and smart phones, but the Korean manufacturer creates a variety of products and accounts for nearly 20% of exports from South Korea.
When the minds of the Samsung Techwin division and Korea University met, they created the SGR-A1. The SGR-A1 a stationary turret-like robot able to capable of observing a perimeter and spot objects up to 4 kilometers away, making the SGR-A1 capable of surveying an enormous portion of the DMZ from a single point.
The SGR-A1 is programmed with pattern recognition software that allows the robot to differentiate between a trespassing human and a Siberian tiger passing through the field of view. One could argue that the SGR-A1 is only thing deadlier than the tigers and bears running through the DMZ, as the SGR-A1 has a number of built-in failsafes to prevent accidental firing.
If a human is sighted, the SGR-A1 issues an audio warning. If the sighted individual recites the proper code within a short window of time or makes a surrender gesture, the SGR-A1 is programmed to not fire on the target. Should the SGR-A1 ever need to use force, however, it is armed with a 5 mm machine gun that can be outfitted with rubber bullets or typical ammunition. A 40 mm automatic grenade launcher is available as an optional add-on. Interestingly, the Korean company Daewoo, a company better known for creating low end cars and home appliances, built the machine gun outfitted on the SGR-A1.
Robotic technology similar to the Samsung Techwin SGR-A1 is currently used by South Korean soldiers to defend military installations in Iraq. The exact number of SGR-A1 deployed and their current positions along the DMZ, however, is a closely held government secret and thus classified.
Automatic vs. Manual
Samsung’s robot guardian exists with a manual function allowing for DMZ personnel to mead out lethal force, however, an automatic setting is also available. Ideally, the preset for each SGR-A1 deployed along the DMZ should be in manual mode, with a human making the decision to apply lethal force. Current guidelines call for two individuals to guide the actions of an SGR-A1 in manual mode. The presence of an automatic feature, however, makes for an interesting scenario wherein the recognition of a hand gesture is the difference between life and death. If you have every spent a significant amount of time using the Xbox 360 Kinect add-on, which works also works on camera-based motion recognition technology, this is a scary thought.
The stationary aspect of the SGR-A1 is an interesting one as well. The vision of a talking, R2D2-like robot armed with grenade launchers and machine guns is pretty damned frightening. Mobility is a key security issue, as an automated, machine gun armed robot steering off its course could pose a danger to any number of individuals, whether friend or foe.
The Samsung SGR-A1 currently comes with the above, along with heat sensors, a sixty-day digital video recorder and three on-board surveillance cameras. With all these bells and whistles, the SGR-A1 sounds like a steal at its current cost of $200,000. The price tag is a little more than the cost of a new Bugatti Veyron, but the SGR-A1 is imminently more handy if you find yourself in a jam.
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