The US Thinks China May Have Stolen Military Robot Designs

QinetiQ's Dragon Runner 20 Small Unmanned Ground DR20 Vehicle (SUGV) in action.
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QinetiQ's Dragon Runner 20 Small Unmanned Ground DR20 Vehicle (SUGV) in action.

U.S. officials have ordered an investigation into whether China might be gaining an unfair competitive advantage in the robotics race.

The federal government wants to know if hacked trade secrets are aiding the rise of an army of Chinese androids.

At least one China-backed cyberspy operation reportedly snared robotics research from QinetiQ, a Pentagon contractor and the supposed inspiration for gadget-maker “Q” in the James Bond movie franchise. 

This week, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission began looking for analysts to write an unclassified report on China’s current industrial and military robotics capabilities, including the origins of those capabilities.

The study will identify know-how and tools that “have likely been acquired by China through technology transfers or cyber penetrations,” according to a Jan. 13 federal business solicitation

The commission also intends to gauge the chances China’s automation efforts could eclipse comparable Pentagon initiatives, including “Offset,” a Defense Department research initiative meant to “offset” technological advances made by adversaries.

There are concerns China might be gaining an unfair competitive advantage in the robotics race.

Between 2007 and 2009, attackers tied to the People’s Liberation Army allegedly hacked a QinetiQ specialist who worked on embedded software in microchips that control the company’s military robots, Bloomberg reported, citing investigations by security firms Terremark and HBGary.  The Chinese military later showcased a bomb disposal robot in April 2012 that resembled QinetiQ’s Dragon Runner.

Now the United States is saying publicly it’s aiming to find out the technical specs of China’s humanoids. The forthcoming report will “identify key suppliers of components and chips,” as well as programming languages used in robotics research and development.

To what extent do Chinese robotics technologies rely on U.S. or other imported software, components or other technology?” is one question the study will address.

In addition, the U.S. government seeks to learn the names of R&D organizations in the Chinese robotics field and locate any ties to the PLA.  

Chinese “breakthroughs” in self-driving vehicles, unmanned aircraft and seagoing drones are also an area of U.S. interest. 

The commission last year noted that, already, Chinese robots are capable of engaging in extraterrestrial war. 

While antisatellite systems haven’t been much of a threat since the Cold War, China’s space activities suggest the nation state is tailoring machines to potentially eviscerate U.S. space assets, according to the commission’s 2015 report to Congress. The Chinese systems consist of “a satellite armed with a weapon,” commission officials said. Once close enough to an American target, the machine can deploy the armament against or “intentionally crash into the target satellite.” 

China is “setting a strong foundation for future co-orbital antisatellite systems that could include jammers, robotic arms, kinetic kill vehicles, and lasers,” the report stated. 

Some of China’s hopes for AI-powered combat are public knowledge.

Chinese state-sponsored news agency Xinhua on Dec. 27, 2015 reported that, at a China civil-military integration conference in Beijing, several military equipment-makers demonstrated to 200 PLA members products that included robots and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. 

“The Chinese government and the PLA have meted out a succession of measures to boost the private sector’s participation in the arms and equipment industry over the past two years,” according to Xinhua.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work recently said he expects to see Chinese or Russian robotic troops orchestrating military operations one day soon. 

We know that China is already investing heavily in robotics and autonomy, and the Russian Chief of General Staff [Valery Vasilevich] Gerasimov recently said that the Russian military is preparing to fight on a roboticized battlefield,”  Work told a national security forum on Dec. 14, 2015, according to Defense One. ”And he said, and I quote, ‘In the near future, it is possible that a complete roboticized unit will be created capable of independently conducting military operations.’”

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