Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
Sheltering in the Urban
In the control room back in Darwin all eyes are on the big screen. There is consternation. Two CUAS MAVOC are showing the off-line symbol and an alert is flashing on the border of the display. The officer standing behind the air defenders, turns to the One-Star, “Yep, I think they have both been hit, and that means they’ve got something bloody fast, Sir. My other forward vehicle is still good to go, but whatever that was might come again” He turns away from the commander to listen to an urgent whisper from one of the operators. Another artillery officer speaks: “Okay we got a trace back. It’s flat and fast. Has to be gun launched. We got a fix that seems to be in an industrial Park”. The One-star thinks aloud. “I doubt they have thermal seekers, let’s get cold smoke over our survivor, Rocket-gunners please, and Bird gunners, bring a couple more platforms forward from the beach ”.
Even as the artillery desk inputs appear on the big screen heralding the smoke mission, the air defence officer calls out again: “Sir, that’s not good”. He is referring to a pattern of red symbols that has suddenly appeared on the map over the south end of the town, slowly drifting towards the Western approach. “That’s a whole damn swarm, Sir.” The armoured commander calls out in an alarmed tone: “Damn, I’m moving my peeps to a new hide right now.” The one star speaks firmly: “Steady. The altitude – they are still climbing. They have not hit us straightaway so that can only be to get well above our guns – or until every one of their bloody missiles has acquired something. I think we have a couple of minutes, we planned for this, get everything and everyone indoors”.
Smoke drifts across the entire Western approach of the town, yet over the shattered Echthros perimeter positions where a threat may yet lurk, the clouds are the thicker metallised multispectral variety. Nothing can be seen by the naked eye or even in the thermal range, although the protective cloak equally blinds the drones. Most now sit silently perched on their long wire legs on rooftops. A partly crewed troop of three MAVOC is rolling steadily and invisibly through the fog along the middle of the central Western approach road, the AI keeping them a constant 25 m apart and on precisely the same point on the tarmac as other vehicles have used earlier. Yet though hidden, they can ‘sense’. Projected onto their helmet screens are the images of nearby flat surfaces captured by the LIDAR camera. These shimmering panel-like representations are matched and superimposed on a crisp virtual ‘wire model’ of the outlines of the surrounding buildings. While they see little, they are one-eyed in the kingdom of the blind.
The order for the force to take cover arrives when the team is just short of the destroyed Echthros perimeter positions, though their planned route passes between the destruction. Either side of the road, though unseen in the fog, are sprawling one and two-storey shops and offices. On the synthetic ‘wire view’ of the streetscape projected onto the crew’s helmet screens, the proposed shelter buildings are already pulsing green. The commander looks again. One is pulsing yellow, which indicates reservation. But then she understands – it’s not really a building, it’s a big awning over the front of a petrol station. Okay, that will be somewhere to put the uncrewed MAVOC and will avoid a crash breach drill and maybe killing civilians. That is such a big deal that a primary building breach in a populated area is the commander’s gig. The commander puts the vehicle into a lazy skidding turn to the left as the uncrewed MAVOC in front and behind her slew right. She recognises her selected building and lines up to strike it squarely at a window opening. There is heavy jagged edged tool that wraps over the front of the vehicle that looks rather like a wide and inverted excavator bucket. Electric machinery whines and the building breaching tool rises up to be just higher than the turret. Below this a more conventional dozer blade also lifts slightly to where it will protect the optical and thermal sensors, while at the same time the turret swings 180° to face the weapon barrels, their protective surround and the optics to the rear. Strapped to their seats tightly inside the now slowly moving MAVOC the soldiers see the synthetic image of a shadowy wall moving towards them. They instinctively brace even before the cutting blade tip strikes the wall with a distinctive crumbling crunch that brings the vehicle to a halt. The LIDAR image disappears but in its place is an even fuzzier coloured image. The vehicle AI is processing the return signals from the microwave scanner mounted in the dozer blade. A second or two later the crew can see indistinct shapes that are probably desks and chairs, but nothing that looks human and certainly not the distinctive signal of a moving object. The commander is satisfied and flicks the probe control. The turret rotates to point forwards again with the swinging barrel shroud elevating to pass over the breach tool arms and then dipping to point at the wall that the MAVOC blade is pressing against a few centimetres in front of it.
The crumbling sensation within the vehicle when the blade struck, reassured its passengers that the barrier is a light concrete block construction. The same message has passed in an electronic instant from the strain gauges on the breaching cutter to the vehicle AI system. The wide shroud surrounding the barrel assembly conceals other tools. A telescopic steel probe shoots out at a velocity precisely calculated to penetrate and it punches through the wall. A moment later a composite view from tiny cameras behind the tungsten head reveals to the crew a room full of swirling dust– but no occupants.
The commander flicks the probe control again, it retracts and the whole barrel assembly dips into its protective recess in the top of the hull. Then she thumbs the control first to the dispenser setting, selects ‘Sat-rebro’ and presses. A frisbee-sized shaggy fabric coated object is ejected sideways off the vehicle to fall on the street near the building wall, only the wire trailing back to a spool on the MAVOC reveals it is not a piece of discarded rubbish. The small satellite dish will ensure that once the vehicle is inside the building without a view of the sky, both it and other devices it controls or emplaces can continue to use satellite links and reduce demand on the mesh net.
The commander now selects breach setting and under AI control, the MAVOC moves slowly back from the wall, turning to be slightly oblique to it, and stopping. This time the crew adopt a brace position with their hands on their helmets, protecting their delicate screens. The AI has already calculated setback distance and how much torque from the electric motors can be applied without causing the rubber tracks to skid. Without further warning, the vehicle accelerates towards the wall. Perhaps counterintuitively, it is the acceleration that throws the soldiers hard against their harnesses: the torque of the electric motors is massive. In contrast the deceleration as the blade slices through the wall is far less violent, and over in an instant.
A slow-motion camera would reveal that as the upper horizontal blade tips penetrate, they shear a fracture in the masonry just higher than the vehicle, while the backwards angled jagged vertical blades simultaneously start to make two downward vertical slices, together cutting an inverted C. Moments later when the dozer blade contacts the now unsupported newly cut-out panel it collapses forwards in front of the advancing vehicle, becoming rubble under its tracks.
Inside the building, the MAVOC pauses briefly. The four crew members resist the temptation to relax now that they no longer face the lurking danger from warheads overhead. They use their helmet screens to look all around the dust filled large room, alert for other movement than plaster falling from the ceiling tiles. The system stitches together the images from the 360 degrees hull mounted fixed cameras and the effect is as if the vehicle armour is invisible. The crew scan their assigned arcs searching amongst the tables and chairs of the café for any signs of military presence but detect nothing. The commander calls “drop a Cyclops by that doorway on the left” and one of the crew turns her gaze to where she wants to place the grenade and touches a switch.
On the top of the vehicle, a small dispenser tube tracks in the demanded direction and a cylindrical projectile pops out to land 5 m away in the passage that appears to lead to a kitchen. It has barely hit the ground and stopped rolling before it stirs again of its own accord. It rises to the vertical, pushed by wires that fan out from its base, leaving an unblinking ultrawide lowlight camera looking in all directions. Its microprocessor quickly builds a picture of its surroundings and it starts to self-calibrate so that it will only alert and transmit when a seismic or visual signature suggest a human is about. It never stops listening for the coded command to detonate its fragmentation warhead. This order can come from any authorised human – including those watching intently in Darwin.
The MAVOC moves again, rubber tracks squeaking on tiles as it skid steers sharply to the right before heading towards an interior dividing wall. Again, the probe cameras show no sign of human presence while the strain gauges on the probe mounting have already identified a light plaster wall. It’s fragility means that there is no need for the probe to be retracted before the vehicle advances. As soon as the commander selects ‘breach’ the vehicle smashes ahead. Two interior walls further on, the probe shows windows in the room ahead: an exterior wall. The commander calls “Okay let’s go firm”. The MAVOC backs up slightly on this order, and with the probe free of the wall the turret rotates in the shroud elevates until it is touching the ceiling, punching the probe up through the ceiling into the room above: no threat seen. Strapped tightly to their seats they feel the vibration as an uncrewed MAVOC follows their path, but halts just inside the entry and as a neutral turn through 180°.
In the front vehicle, the commander calls: “out, out, quick close check only, and two Spheridrones”. The rear door opens and two soldiers roll out. Working as a pair, they swiftly and systematically move around the adjoining rooms that are filling with the smoke that is billowing through the smashed walls from the street. On each of the vehicles, a semi spherical tube shrouded drone rises from its storage canister and begins an autonomous indoor search pattern. When the soldiers reach the stairwell, one touches a control on her arm and the Spheridrone5 moves towards her. This is a heavier beast than the unarmed versions that hunted the Echthros on the perimeter. Inside its protective cage a menacing tube points out between the eye lenses of the thermal and visual sensors. As always, the soldier flinches slightly as the muzzle stares at her, but she gestures upwards at the camera beside it and the drone immediately moved past her and up the stairs. She hears a reassuring voice in her earpiece, crystal clear from Darwin, “looks good Ness. Hang a moment. Okay, an open room, looks like its used for storage. Turning left, and East is clear, North similar, West clear and South is a wall. Clear to climb one level.” The two soldiers train their weapons upwards and climb the stairs. The leader sees that the room is long and open but there are several lines of packing cases at the far end. He warns “Cyclops out” and with his left hand he grabs a grenade from its holster and tosses it behind the barrier and then returns his hand to the holster ready to begin an initiation transmission, keeping his rifle trained to the threat the whole time. “What can you see” he calls to his buddy, who he knows will now be looking at the screen to see what is in the grenade’s fisheye view. There is a short delay, probably as the Cyclops is struggling to right itself, then the reassuring words “all good”. The thrower walks forward briskly, retrieves the grenade and clips it back into the holster, watching for the green LED to show the disarm signal. Confident there is no one present, they descend, climb back into the vehicle and close down.
The commander flicks the transmission switch and talks to her boss back in Darwin: “Okay we can breach with the other two MAVOC”. She rotates her own turret to point at the nearby wall behind which and across the street hidden in the multispectral fog the two MAVOC are poised with their cutting arms pressed against the building. The soldiers next to her operate the switches to confirm default override for lethal engagement if communications to Darwin are lost. She and the commander select enlarged vision mode from a vehicle across the street, while the other two soldiers continue to scan around them through the ‘invisible’ armour that surrounds them. The leading MAVOC mirrors the breaching actions of the crewed vehicle, probing first, with the commander confirming no human presence before the platform smashes into the building. As soon as the first has breached one interior wall the second robotic vehicle backs away from its position against the wall, turns, and then follows the first inside.
Then the pattern changes. A moment after the probe on the leading uncrewed MAVOC vehicle smashes through a second interior wall, a voice pipes up in Darwin “Hang on Ma’am what’s that there on the table?” Her response is “just looks like a drinks bottle to me”. The soldier next to her echoes that thought “I don’t see anything special?’. Yet there is. The voice from Home Base again: “That’s Echthros script on the bottle”. In an instant the commander realises the significance. The building could be an OP. “Hit the gas she calls” and the distant driver flicks the switch that discharges ethylene oxide from the probe. He holds the switch down for a long two seconds before releasing it and triggering ignition. There is a powerful blast that blows the interior plaster wall backwards, shattering and scattering it over and either side of the vehicle, which is now stands in greatly enlarged room bounded by collapsed wall panels, and furniture scattered towards the walls. As plaster continues to fall and dust swirls it is joined by smoke rolling in through the blown-out windows.
A hatch lifts on the back of the uncrewed MAVOC, spilling debris onto the floor. A Spheridrone rises out of its container and begins its autonomous bobbing searching movement, while the operator in Darwin comments, unnecessarily: “pretty hard to see anything”. He touches his Control Panel and the turret rotates as the barrel shroud elevates towards the ceiling and extends the probe. “It’s a slab, boss, can I punch a hole”. The assent is not heard, but the thump as a single cannon shell smashes through 9 cm of concrete is unmistakable even inside the armoured vehicle across the street. As soon as the probe stops after being pushed up through the aperture it is obvious there is movement on the upper level. For a moment it is unclear whether the moving figures are combatants, but then one moves towards the probe and the wide-angle lens enlarges him and the assault rifle he carries is unmistakable. Another two second jet of ethylene oxide gives another detonation which blows the windows out of the next level of the building.
The MAVOC commander directs the soldier in Darwin who is operating the uncrewed MAVOC 15 m behind her on her side of the street. “Gus, give me an HE burst for every room in the level above that contact for Charlie Two please”. She can hear, or rather feel from vibration, the MAVOC two rooms away behind her move and then hears a response in her headset “I have that now” and she replies “Hit it now”. The cannon of the vehicle behind fires. Its first frangible shot smashes into the wall from 2 m away from the muzzle instantly opening a loophole. Then it fires three shots in quick succession with a slight traverse between each. Set to delay, the rounds rip through the wall of the building across the street and detonate within. “Next level too” she calls. The MAVOC elevates its barrel assembly slightly, fires another frangible round for safety, then hurls another three detonations into rooms on the next floor up.
“Okay that’s enough thank you,” she advises into a microphone. “Get a couple of Cyclops up there and we will be good”.
Dr Charles Knight developed this narrative as part of concept development and design activity with EOS Defence Systems to inform current and future Australian autonomous and remote operations technology development. Many of the concepts covered in this narrative are being actively pursued by EOS Defence and numerous other Australian industry players.
Images by James Wilson-Knight
Dr Charles Knight
Dr Charles Knight explores how to reduce the risks and costs of combat amongst structures and populations – an interest sparked when as a Parachute Regiment officer he was tasked to develop urban combat and subterranean capabilities for confronting the Soviets in the German city of Hildesheim. He is a senior researcher at the University of NSW, Canberra and an adjunct lecturer at Charles Sturt University. His Masters research analysed vulnerabilities to asymmetric attacks in cities and his PhD examined coercion duringcounterinsurgency – both informed by field research in the Lebanon and Cambodia, as well as by uniformedservice with the RAF, British and Omani Armies and in Asia. In Australia he served in 1 Commando Regiment, commanded 2/17 Bn, Royal New South Wales Regiment, spent a decade in the Special Operations development branch, drove reform of close combat training and wrote the Australian Army urban doctrine.