The use of a robot to deliver an explosive device and kill the Dallas shooting suspect has intensified the debate over a future of “killer robots”.
While robots and unmanned systems have been used by the military before, this is the first time the police within the US have used such a technique with lethal intent
“Other options would have exposed our officers to greater danger,” the Dallas police chief said.
Robots are spreading fast. What might that mean?
Remote killing is not new in warfare. Technology has always been driven by military application, including allowing killing to be carried out at distance – prior examples might be the introduction of the longbow by the English at Crecy in 1346, then later the Nazi V1 and V2 rockets.
More recently, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones such as the Predator and the Reaper have been used by the US outside of traditional military battlefields.
Since 2009, the official US estimate is that about 2,500 “combatants” have been killed in 473 strikes, along with perhaps more than 100 non-combatants. Critics dispute those figures as being too low.
Back in 2008, I visited the Creech Air Force Base in the Nevada desert, where drones are flown from.
During our visit, the British pilots from the RAF deployed their weapons for the first time.
One of the pilots visibly bristled when I asked him if it ever felt like playing a video game – a question that many ask.
Supporters of drones argue that they are more effective than manned planes because they can usually loiter longer and ensure they strike the right target.
And, of course, there is the understandable desire to reduce risks to pilots, just as in Dallas the police officers could stay protected.
But critics argue that the lack of risk fundamentally changes the nature of operations since it lowers the threshold for lethal force to be used.
Robots have also been deployed on the ground militarily.
South Korea pioneered using robots to guard the demilitarised zone with North Korea. These are equipped with heat and motion detectors as well as weapons.
The advantage, proponents say, is that the robots do not get tired or fall asleep, unlike human sentries.