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10 5 2022

NCI Agency explores autonomous robot technology to support NATO operations

The NATO Communications and Information Agency (NCI Agency) is testing a robot 'dog' which could be used to support operations in hazardous environments.

The NCI Agency is exploring the use of autonomous systems to understand how and when they can support operations, and in particular, how different commercial devices from a variety of sources can be connected securely. This reflects a future where autonomous devices from different sources interoperate seamlessly. 'Spot', a remote-piloted 'dog' developed by Boston Dynamics is one component of the Agency's work in this area.

The four-legged robot is intended to help improve situational awareness during military missions in hard-to-reach or dangerous environments. This venture is part of NATO's recent commitment to explore emerging and disruptive technologies and their potential uses. This builds on previous work using simple Internet of Things (IoT) devices to create complex autonomous systems.

Spot could play a significant role in future NATO humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. Dr Michael Street, Chief of Exploiting Data Science and Artificial Intelligence at the NCI Agency explains, "In the event of an evacuation mission or an environment too dangerous for personnel, Spot could act as a first responder to allow real-time analysis of the situation. This would support our commanders in making better, faster decisions, ultimately saving lives."

The robot is equipped with a 360-degree embedded camera and infrared sensors. It can carry and power up to 14kg of inspection equipment. Using artificial intelligence (AI), Spot can map terrain and avoid obstacles as they appear, as well as climb stairs and follow pre-set routes with little or no input from users.

The NCI Agency's Exploiting Data Science and AI team, in collaboration with the NATO Cyber Security Centre, industry and academia, will programme Spot to execute different tasks independently. The robot is currently controlled from afar using an intuitive tablet application, but the main aim is to make Spot less dependent on the operator and capable of performing repeatable actions autonomously.

The team is also exploring how Spot can communicate with other devices. Spot's "paws on the ground" can be connected to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone. The UAV's "eyes in the sky" and extended radio communications gives Spot greater awareness of the terrain ahead, allowing it to make better decisions about the intended target and route. UAVs also increase the communication range. Together, these technologies would be able to give decision-makers a comprehensive and accurate view of an environment.

"In rapidly-changing scenarios, such as natural disasters, it is essential to improve the information provided to our commanders. In the future, Spot could give unparalleled access and information in these situations, allowing NATO personnel to protect citizens across the Alliance more effectively," said LTC Fabio Marziani, Project Manager, Exploiting Data Science and AI at the NCI Agency.

Spot the robot is one of the many innovations explored by the NCI Agency to help maintain NATO's technological edge. During 2022, Agency scientists are conducting practical tests to explore hypothetical scenarios with Spot. They are collaborating with other NATO entities and with Nations through the STO IST-176 initiative.