The future of military training? Target practice on running, shrieking robots

You don’t have to be a firearms expert to know that the shooting range isn’t a perfect stand-in for what it’s like to be in a real firefight. Unless you happen to find yourself in a shootout with a group of enemy mannequins or two-dimensional cutouts with their vital organs helpfully labeled, shooting ranges are simplified abstractions that don’t bear much resemblance to real-life warfare.

But just because the technology hasn’t previously existed doesn’t mean that’s the case any more. Here in 2020, with autonomous robots getting better all the time, a company called Marathon Targets has created a solution. And it’s one the Terminator-style sentient robots, when they finally arrive, probably aren’t going to like.

Transforming the shooting range

“Combat is the worst place to practice a life-or-death skill for the very first time — especially when those ‘targets’ are shooting real bullets back at you,” Ralph Petroff, president of the North America branch of Marathon Targets, told Digital Trends. “It violates the time-honored principle to always ensure that you have extensively trained critical skills before being sent to combat. Currently, unless they have trained with autonomous robots, shooters are sent into combat without ever having shot at a realistic moving target – a fundamental training deficiency with deadly consequences.”

Marathon’s autonomous robots are intended to act as target practice for military forces and police. The wheeled robots, which resemble store mannequins on heavy duty Segways, don’t just stand still and calmly accept whatever caliber fate comes their way. If one robot is hit, the ones around it will scatter, run (well, roll) for cover, or even self-organize a counterattack.

“The autonomous targets have features in common with self-driving cars — lidar for navigation and collision avoidance, plus speakers that simulate speech or military sound effects like gunshots,” Petroff continued. “They can even curse at you in 57 different dialects. The robots can act as either an enemy force or as civilian bystanders — or hostages used as human shields. Their highly efficient electric engines and batteries can propel 500 pounds robots at human running speed. [They will ] flinch and grunt when wounded, and even shriek and fall when ‘killed.’”

Marathon Targets built its first target robots in 2008. Twelve years and five generations later, they’re still going strong. The robots are designed with puncture-proof tires and are armored to withstand millions of rounds of rifle and light machine gun bullets. Petroff said that this is “no small feat in its own right.”

Disruptive robots

Marathon’s robots have been used by the Australian Defense Force, U.S. Department of Defense, Canadian special forces, the Slovenian and German armies, and assorted NATO and Middle Easter countries. Most recently, the U.S. Marine Corps took to using the robots for its “range of the future” training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. In short, Marathon’s robo-targets are gaining momentum all the time — even if, as Petroff said, there’s still room for even more widespread adoption.

“Disruptive technologies always receive pushback from ‘traditionalists,’” he said. “This is especially true of radically disruptive technologies like autonomous infantry targets. All highly disruptive military technologies have faced pushback from traditionalists: Steam-powered ships, machine guns, steel warships, airplanes, aircraft carriers, and, most recently, even drones … All faced significant delays in deployment because of the radical change they brought to the way things have always been done. So autonomous robots are in good company.”

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