Robot dogs to patrol Cape Canaveral Space Force Station

·5 min read

Dogs have been part of military forces since ancient times, believed to have traveled alongside Greek and Roman soldiers.

That tradition is continuing at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. But befitting the installation's high-tech mission, these dogs are fueled by electricity not Alpo.

Yes, robot dogs are coming to the Space Coast.

Two "Quadropedal Unmanned Ground Vehicles," as manufacturer Ghost Robotics calls them, put on a demonstration of their capabilities at the installation late last month.

Among the way the robots might be used at the Cape is for security patrols, responding to launch mishaps and augmenting the small team that ride out hurricanes at the installation.

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"The Q-UGV effectively demonstrates how manual and repetitive tasks can be automated using ground-based robots," the Space Force said in a statement. "Whether it's a safety incident or for persistent security operations, our personnel can deploy the robot, assess a scenario, and provide Guardians and Airmen with clearer situational awareness and a decision advantage. All while protecting personnel from personal hazard."

There is no word yet on when the dogs might be deployed here.

These are not the first robot dogs in the military: Four were deployed at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Panhandle last year. Cape Canaveral becomes the eighth base to use the robot dogs.

The Department of Homeland Security announced in February that it was deploying robo dogs to help patrol the borderlands of the American Southwest.

“The southern border can be an inhospitable place for man and beast, and that is exactly why a machine may excel there,” said Brenda Long, a DHS spokesperson.

Ghost Robotics has made more than 250 of the robots so far, with the Air Force and Special Forces units being prime users, said CEO Gavin Kenneally, who co-founded the company while a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We're the No. 1 seller of legged robots into government markets." Kenneally said. "We've sold significantly into the US, but also other allied countries. We've sold into Australia, UK, Germany, Korea, Singapore, and Japan, just really all over the world to other allied governments."

Each robot costs about $150,000 depending on how it is customized for each buyer. Each is capable of handling a variety of payloads such as biological, chemical or radiation threat sensors.

The Air Force — and now the Space Force — have been using the robots in security roles.

"So basically having the robots augment the capabilities of base security, in terms of walking perimeters, and doing various types of analytics, whether that's, you know, audio or video or even attaching, you know, chemical, biological radiation or nuclear threat detection sensors on the robots," Kenneally said.

And unlike humans, the weather means little to the robots. They can operate in temperatures as low as minus 40 and as high as 130 degrees Farenheit. They can be fully submerged under a meter of water for 30 minutes and still function.

Users can control the robots using special tablet computers with joysticks or they can be automated to do repetitive tasks, such a patrolling a base perimeter.

The robots have a top speed of about 7 mph, or about as fast as a recreational runner.

Robot dogs are having something of a moment as of late.

Spot, a robot dog made by the company Boston Dynamics, is a YouTube sensation whose videos have been watched millions of times and who was profiled in The Washington Post last year.

A particularly memorable episode of the Netflix anthology series Black Mirror featured killer robot dogs relentlessly hunting the remaining humans in a post-apocalyptical world.

Kenneally said when he started the company in 2015 and told people what his plans were, they would mention the "Terminator" movies, which featured robots as killing machines.

"Yeah, I think this is a little bit unfortunate that that's kind of the way that the media chooses to show this stuff," Kenneally said. "It's always kind of these robots going out of control."

In reality, he said, robots such as his are simply productivity tools, like the computers many people use every day.

"It's basically a computer or a server that has legs and can walk around and, you know, move around in the world. So it really doesn't have ... good or evil agency or anything like that," Kenneally said. "You know, it's a tool, just like a computer, just like a smartphone. But it just happens to be able to be to be mobile, and walk around."

That said, there is the possibility that robot dogs could take on warfighting roles in the future.

Last year Ghost Robotics worked with small arms manufacturer Sword International to develop a sniper rifle that could be deployed on the robots.

None of the rifle-equipped robots are in use, Kenneally said. That said, the company continues to explore ways to weaponize the robots.

"We support the weaponization of these robots, but it's very important to us that it happens through government partners," Kenneally said. "Within the U.S. government, we have several key partners, who are really helping us to understand, you know, how to do this the right way and have the weaponized robots really support our warfighters mostly on the on the Special Forces side."

Among those pushing back against the weaponization of the robots was Daniel Koditschek, a Penn professor who was Kenneally's mentor, who asked that any mention of him, or his lab at Penn be removed from the company's website and promotional material.

“In part, my refusal to allow any further association with the new direction of your company reflects my uncertainty about when cheap, human-packable, armed autonomous mobility crosses the line into violation of the international law of armed conflict," Koditschek wrote in a letter to the company. "In contrast, I am certain that this integration of guns with the emerging agility and eventual ubiquity of small legged machines transgresses a crucial ethical barrier."

Kenneally had a different take on the matter.

"There's no ability of the robot to go astray in some way. It would be like if your computer went rogue or something, which doesn't really happen."

A 25+ year veteran of FLORIDA TODAY, John McCarthy currently oversees the space team and special projects. Support quality local journalism by subscribing to FLORIDA TODAY. You can contact McCarthy at 321-752-5018 or jmccarthy@floridatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: The Space Force will use robotic dogs at Cape Canaveral base