Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
The pattern is a familiar one, though invisible to its targets in the smoke. From somewhere inland on the north of the island white smoke trails race towards the town, not onto the clinic but towards points on the roads around it. Once again, before they impact, they disintegrate to scatter multispectral smoke and powders, denying the Echthros observation onto the clinic approaches. As the shimmering clouds begin to roll down the streets towards the clinic, events closer by accelerate. A half-dozen of the sacrificial ‘flying disc’ Breachdrone4’s lift off from the trailer followed by a full dozen Pistoldrone5’s. Next to them on the road several of the Agitrak55s motor up the lane move outwards to locate themselves in concealment amongst street furniture, deployed looking inwards onto each of three near faces of the building. Three others stop in the lane at the rear of the clinic facing the double fire exit doors at the bottom of an emergency stairwell at the. None of this is visible or even sensed by the Echthros, as the deafening sound of their own work, using automatic fire to bore holes in concrete, reverberates through the building. Their first awareness of increased threat is the near simultaneous detonation of four munitions around the clinic.
On the front wall of the clinic which faces out to the main road and towards other Echthros positions, a Breachdrone4 has detonated at each of the four stories, blowing debris away from the attacking platforms and leaving an oval hole the size of a bicycle wheel. At the same time one of the Agitrak55 has fired a breaching munition to blow away the fire stairwell doors. There is a 10 second pause for debris to land, punctuated by a series of single shots from one of the overwatching Agitrak fired into the outside of the stairwell above the breach and further less lethal glycol smoke munitions from the Polywheeler to thicken up the smoke density within the clinic. Then the lethal robotic platforms enter.
A stream of drones – a single Breachdrone4 followed by a dozen Pistoldrone5s and a similar number of Spheridrones at rises from the trailer and curves over the top of the administration building. There the swarm splits with the Breachdrone4 and one Pistoldrone entering through the fire doors and starting to spiral up the stairwell. All the other drones curve over the top of the clinic, drop-down on the far side, and create simultaneous entry on every level. The Breachdrone4, moving ahead of Pistoldrone5 hovers straight to the fire exit door on the top floor, turns 90° to the vertical, sticks itself to the door panel and detonates its oval-shaped linear charge. The following drone has been held back to shelter from the blast and now moves up onto the ceiling with its weapon trained downwards onto the new breach. At the bottom of the fire escape, Agitrak55s in turn are climbing the steps, deploying so that there is one positioned on each floor, covering the fire escape door from the inside. Simultaneously on every floor, drones follow a similar hunting pattern, with the unarmed Spheridrones working autonomously and feeding the common 3D battle picture, while the controllers in the HAPC use waypoint commands to direct a pair of the lethal Pistoldrone5s as they ‘pepperpot’ across the ceiling with only one moving at a time while the other is ready to fire.
On the 3D virtual display of the building, updates start to display rooms in colour codes indicating which spaces are believed free of enemy, which are unknown and those where enemy are suspected. Overlaid on this are the known Echthros casualties and positions of civilians. In a few minutes it is evident that there are no defenders still resisting in the areas that drones can currently reach. The troop commander decides to exploit the psychological ascendancy and speaks to the section commander: “I want your Filia liaison soldier to make an announcement to the civilians in the building – you can patch it through to me on this means and then we will put it out on the rooftop speaker – get him to instruct them to leave by the front of the building, use the front stairwell and carry nothing – tell them not to say anything about the enemy – I’m quite happy if any of them decide to dump their weapons and go out that way.” Over the next 10 minutes a handful of staff walk out of the building into the mist. Then several single shots are heard from within the clinic and nobody else emerges. The troop commander calls up the section again: “okay, time to do it!”.
From their positions concealed in the bushes near the front of the admin building, two of the UGV discharge multispectral smoke grenades. After a pause for a few seconds for the cloud to build up, two of the MAVOC reverse out of the admin building they are in, reverse around the corner and both back up towards the fire exit. They stop so that their rear doors both face the fire doorway at 45°, forming a protected area. The doors open and the commander, the Filia soldier and two others race up the stairwell, followed by the dogs and handlers. All of them wear head-mounted thermal goggles.
Just before the first soldier reaches the top level, two of the controllers in the HAPC drive the Agitrak through the shattered fire door out onto the smoke on the top floor with the Pistoldrone hovering above. It rolls down to the far end of a corridor where a closed door leads to several rooms that may conceal a Marine. The breaching device on the front of the small machine smashes forwards and the door flies open. The little vehicle rolls back and switches on its smoke generator, pausing for a moment while the vapour cloud flows into the rooms beyond. From somewhere within a burst of shots is fired wildly. The operators wait until the obscurant surrounds the Echthros fighter for they send the drone to hunt and kill the man. He does not sees the shot that strikes him, only feels a draught from the drone above him just before it fires.
The surprise and distraction noise from the from the crewless contact is the cue for the rest of the team to move from the stairwell, fanning out, treading quietly and virtually invisible, the Filia soldier talking softly to reassure staff and ask them where the Echthros are. There are occasional shrieks from behind where the searching dogs and handlers surprise terrified civilians.
Satisfied that the top floor of the building is clear, the section commander speaks to his troop commander and sketches his thinking: “Boss, I’m firm on the top floor. Our Filia soldier has been talking to the staff and they all insist that the Echthros are holed up in the middle of the ground floor. Apparently all that firing we heard was them shooting holes in concrete walls to cut firing loops. Looking at the plans I reckon the lift shaft and the toilet blocks on either side are very concrete and they are sitting inside of a bit of a fortress. Problem is there are rooms all around them. Full of staff and patients, so we can’t just blast them with the MAVOC from outside. In fact, there are civvies all over this building and it’s going to take a while to clear down the next two floors. I don’t think it’s a very good idea to leave the Marines to their own devices until we done that. Equally, I don’t want to give up the height advantage. But here’s the other thing I noticed, their little fortress is right behind the reception desk and dominates the corridor that runs the length of the building – and the walls are also load-bearing concrete. The interesting thing is that I don’t think the walls at the end of the building are concrete, so here is what I want your team to do…………….
There is synchronised stirring at the rear of the clinic. Two turrets adjust and breaching blades rise up in unison. The MAVOCs angled against the fire stairwell exit doors roll away from each other along the laneway at the back of the building. Reaching the corners, they turn forwards then inwards 180° to squarely face the centre of the end walls. Now moving towards each other, both roll forwards until their blades are in contact with the wall. Steel probes punch through the wall to test and to look. The remote operators see only a long corridor, deserted but for a few benches and a wheelchair. Probes removed, the vehicles back away to take a run up, then the massive torque of their electric motors throws the little machines back to strike with a concussive thud. For a brief moment the combination of impact and sustained thrust bows the decorative brickwork before the panel bursts to shatter along the mortar lines, throwing dark bricks forward through the white plasterwork behind.
The two uncrewed MAVOC motor towards each other at walking pace in the tunnel of the clinic’s main corridor. Every few seconds, one of them fires a less lethal round at one of the doorways ahead. The sound of firing and screaming whistle of the ring airfoil projectile reverberate off the concrete walls. The operators watching the screens in the HAPC magnify the feed from the visual range camera as they look for signs of the enemy position. As they approach the reception desk centre of the building there is a muzzle flash from the convex wall behind. In an instant the talent of the Echthros platoon commander is obvious. He has quickly improvised a position that puts his men behind ferro concrete walls from where they command the interior of the building through loopholes no bigger than a fist.
………Yet capability to bring armour indoors makes his fort a deathtrap. One of the MAVOCs switches on its smoke generator, swings its cannon towards the concrete wall and fires a pattern of explosive rounds a few centimetres apart to smash a head sized hole. Switching to thermal vision, it bores a second and then third aperture to ensure there is an opening into each part of the toilet block as shown on the 3D map of the building. The other MAVOC keeps its weapon trained forwards to protect its firing companion. Satisfied with its destruction, the first MAVOC operator slows its rate of fire as the other shuffles closer to the apertures. The first attempt to project a Cyclops through a cannon cut hole fails. It bounces back off the wall and begins to stand itself up by the reception desk. The operator persists and the although the second munition glances off a piece of reinforcing rod that remains, it disappears behind the wall. As soon as the operator confirms that the Cyclops are both transmitting, the two MAVOC rotate their turrets through 180° and reverse out of the building.
This time the voice of the Filia soldier does not come from a loudspeaker on a nearby rooftop. This time he calls out from within the building, in person. This time his audience listens and obeys. As the smoke begins to thin the top floor the first of the civilians fearfully get up from the floor, gathering in their offices collecting patients from wards and making their way down the rear fire stairs, past the watching UGV’s at each landing and out into the laneway at the rear of the clinic. Their example is followed by others on lower floors, and a trickle becomes a flow and then a torrent. The swarming comes from the top down. Spheridrones already deployed from across the force and begin autonomously searching every space they can reach. The distant human operators of the Agitrak concentrate on facilitating the autonomous search by systematically opening access to every suspicious space, smashing doors, cabinets and stripping away ceiling panels. Only then is one of the dogs sent in – working on a long tether and with a camera fitted to its harness. The small team of humans have one task the machines cannot do. Taking prisoners.
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.