Searching for Russia with the Marker robot, explained
This month, Russia announced that it had completed research on its experimental Marker combat robot. The machine, designed from the start as a test bed for future tools and technologies, was never intended for combat, but machines based on its characteristics will be. In a Russian military that is modernizing and mobilizing for war, the Marker program was a bet placed on the future of Russian robotics, a bet in which the biggest dividends will be realized years from now.
The marker is an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV), similar in shape if not in armament to a tank. And like a tank, it has a tracked platform, on which a range of sensors and weapons can be added. These include a turret with machine guns and anti-tank missiles, as well as a box that can launch drones.
Built by Android Technologies for the Advanced Research Foundation, Russia’s analogue of DARPA, the Marker has been a demonstration vehicle in demonstrations since at least 2019. In this 2019 demonstration, the Marker’s turret tracked the movements of the Scope of an infantry spotter, suggesting that a human could aim the vehicle’s weapon from a distance. Even flashier, the Marker moved in formation alongside 15 smaller quadcopter drones.
“We have completed work on the marker,” Yevgeny Dudorov, head of Android technology, said, according to a recent report by state news agency RIA Novosti. “As part of this, we have developed a number of technologies, but above all, the technology of autonomous group interaction of robotic devices on the ground.”
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The marker, from the beginning, has been a tool for testing and exploring military operations in the safety of controlled field exercises. It’s a way to determine what might be possible if everything lines up the right way on a future battlefield.
“This is Russia’s most visible R&D project involving ground autonomy, swarm development, [ground robot and drone] teaming and manned-unmanned teaming. Marker is also a testbed for military AI solutions such as machine vision, image recognition, and natural language processing,” says Samuel Bendett, analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis and deputy principal investigator at the Center. for New American Security.
In its support for the wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine, Russia has already deployed new robots, but these have been in conventional use cases. Rather than introducing new combat formations, these robots were a tool added to a bomb squadron, or a scout robot incorporated into normal reconnaissance tasks. Marker, by testing systems such as sensors or communications that can go on existing robots, may have improved the functioning of these robots.
The country’s Defense Ministry has announced plans to test its existing Uran-9 combat robot, its Kungas family of combat and reconnaissance robots, and the developing Soratnik and Shturm robot tanks.
“The Russian Ministry of Defense is continuing the swarm and group development of its air, land and sea robotic systems,” Bendett says. “The integration of these unmanned ground vehicles into a common operating environment with manned weapons and systems is a priority of the department’s program.”
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By working with Marker, Russia was able to explore how combat formations designed from the outset to incorporate autonomous robots might work, and whether such formations can augment existing forces. Better communication, reconnaissance and control tools, tested on the marker, could allow robots to work in formation with human-crewed vehicles, and it’s a direction Russia has made clear it wants to take its military robot design.
Since 2014, Russia has backed forces inside eastern Ukraine, and this winter it appears to be mobilizing even more forces for a possible invasion of another part of the country. While Russian robots will likely play a modest role in any larger war between Ukraine and Russia, the Marker will not be one of those vehicles.
“Russia is likely to use Uran-6 mine clearance UGVs, as well as small Scarab and Sphera reconnaissance robots tested by Russian sappers in Syria during mine clearance operations,” Bendett said. “While the Russian military has tested different types of combat UGVs in recent exercises such as Zapad-2021, it is unlikely that they could see any significant use in Ukraine.”
While the Marker-influenced ground robots may fight in future wars, it’s the flying Russian robots that are likely to see action in any conflict in 2022.
“At the same time, many drones can be used by the Russian military in Ukraine, such as multiple short- and medium-range surveillance and reconnaissance models widely used in Syria,” Bendett said.