Who really invented Iraq’s ‘Al Robot’ combat drone?

These days, a lot of tech firsts are coming not from those who can create the most impressive inventions, but from those who are willing to use them: a local police force jury-rigged a bomb squad robot into a rolling grenade, while open source groups of civilians are breaking conceptual taboos by creating 3D printed weapons. Now, another achievement in combat robotics has emerged not from the mighty American or Chinese militaries, but from the fierce desert battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State. The militias fighting this battle have apparently deployed alongside a lethal ground combat drone they call “Al Robot.” It seems to be a first, and an impressive achievement, given the circumstances.

In fact, since Al Robot comes from the country’s fractured Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militias, there should immediately be some questions as to the origin of the technology itself. The official story of Al Robot’s origin comes from an article in the Baghdad Post, which cites “two brothers” for having made it, with no other background. The only other information is a defense analyst tweeting that it was the work of “young Iraqis,” and that the military had taken over the project at a certain point. It certainly sounds like a grassroots sort of thing — but is it?

This isn’t an inconceivable level of uncertainty to come out of a war zone, but it’s worth noting that the PMU forces rolling out with this vehicle are only nominally under the control of the Iraqi government. So, why did this robot deploy with the PMUs and not the (admittedly greatly outnumbered) Army forces? The PMUs are comprised of northern Sunni groups, nationalist Shia Iraqis from the south, and Iranian-backed Shia sectarian forces; of those groups, only Iraq and Iran have shown this level of sophistication in the past. So, if the Iraqi government isn’t openly claiming this as its own, is this perhaps just Iranian tech being not-so-subtly deployed on the battlefield in Iraq?

It does seem likely, but Al Robot’s technology doesn’t necessarily require a large state actor. While this being widely described as a “robot,” which it is, that word tends to evoke images of autonomy. In reality, this could also be described as a great big remote-controlled car with a great big remote-controlled gun on the top. It requires a remote driver and a remote gunner, incorporating thermal cameras, a 12.7mm cannon, and even a Russian-made 70mm rocket launcher. According to the PMU, it’s job at present is to support combat missions with rocket fire, and to head out at night to use its thermal camera to spot targets for snipers and air strikes.

War is Boring noted more than a year ago that Iraqi Shia militias with Iranian backing, often called the Peace Brigades, had put out a video (below) showing robotic combat tech. These robots were primitive, much smaller than the one in the video above and driven by tracks rather than wheels. It’s certainly possible that work on one developed into the other, or that each design came about independently. But it is notable that this general sort of tech has now popped up twice amid forces with explicit support from Iran, a country that has shown an interest in ground drones.

In fact, Iran debuted a ground drone last year (video below). Called the Nazir, it’s mostly a reconnaissance drone, but it is armed with missile tubes. Its reported range is about two kilometers, while the big Iraqi beast is alleged to have a little less, but there’s really no telling about either of them at this point. Ground-based robots have been in testing all around the world for a long time now, however, so the fact that Iran has worked on them too is hardly damning. Nobody can offer more than speculation at this point, but it does seem a bit much to have something like this emerge from the PMU with no explanation beyond “two brothers did it.”

iarqi army

Source: This tweet.

In the past, Iran has shown its willingness to supply drone technology to other actors, notably through aerial drones given to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. It has also sent much more conventional weapons to Hamas in Gaza, showing a willingness to send tech for actual use, rather than just saber-rattling. Taken together, it couldn’t be seen as all that surprising if Iran decided to test a secret ground drone in Iraqi war zones — though it might still feel compelled to use a thin cover story, like that the weapon had been invented by some nameless locals.

The US DoD has been working itself toward increased use of drones, and even toward increased autonomy, for some time — though its spending on unmanned ground systems has been negligible relative to unmanned aerial and even naval units. America has deployed ground combat drones of its own to Iraq, and again it was a lack of confidence, rather than ability, that kept them off the battlefield. Developing these things (and scrapping them) has become a bit of a tradition.

Russia seems to see more value in Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UMGV) superiority, perhaps because it’s looking forward to a future in which its people are more willing to engage in ground wars. Russia has shown its lumpy Taifun-M reconnaissance vehicle, as well as a diminutive little tank called the Uran. It certainly doesn’t look like it’s intended for restraint, with various intimidating phalli pointing every which way — Google Translate tells me that “Uran” translates to “Uran,” but I’m going to believe it means “angry little man” instead.

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