What are Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWS)


You might have watched several movies where robotic army is fighting to protect some territory or attacking adversaries while creating massive destruction and fatal demolition. If you have not watched such movies, I suggest you to watch them to arise the urge to know more about robotic weapons for Artificial Intelligence and LAWS. Mortal Engines, Valerian and City of thousand planets are among that, movies which show autonomous robotic battle and the nuclear battle. These movies might be much forward than the current state of autonomous weapons but somehow can become the future of it. Because researcher are not stepping back from inventing the autonomous war weapons that they have called lethal autonomous weapons.

Lethal autonomous weapons are also referred as autonomous military robots, killer robots, robotic weapons and lethal autonomous systems. It’s definition varies depending upon the usage, nation and organizations. Some scholars define the autonomous weapons as the weapon devices that operate wholly or partially independently, free from human intervention. 

While other scholars state that, the autonomous robotic weapon should perceive the environment and should function in response to changing circumstances of the environment in which they are trained or developed. UK’s Ministry of defence defines another aspect of the autonomous weapons, as actions of robotic weapons are predictable; however, actions of human are not.

In short, lethal autonomous weapons are the military weapons that are driven automatically based on their observation about the environment and target take actions. These actions are heterogeneous depending upon the regulations or requirements of usage. The usage of these autonomous weapons is usually in transport, attack, search and defense. 

History of lethal autonomous weapons

The oldest automatic weapon, used from at least 400 years, is the landmine. Land mine is an explosive appliance, which is kept under ground or above ground and whenever the device undergoes pressure above some threshold value it explodes. Similar is the naval mine, used at least since 1700’s, which is placed inside sea to destroy submarines and ships. Due to the indiscriminative nature of mine explosion devices, a lot of undesired destruction has been faced. Therefore, a number of countries has banned land mines and naval mines.

Since 1970s another LAWs is launched in military domain, called automated active protection system or “hardkill”. Radar-Guided close-in weapons system (CIWS) is one of active protection system. This system detects and destroys any missile, enemy air-craft or rockets that comes in the short range of devices. These systems identify the incoming suspicious objects according to the benchmark set by human operators. Such systems have also been based in tanks like Russian Arena, which uses Doppler-radar to detect penetrating warheads, Israel’s Trophy and Advanced Modular Armor Protection- Active Defense System (AMAP-ADS) developed by Germans. Several guns and missile defense systems has this capability of autonomously intercepting the target and destroying it such as sentry guns and iron dome.

Unmanned combat aerial vehicles or higher degree autonomous drones demonstrated from 2014. It believed that this autonomous drone would developed to build an Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike systems.

Autonomous defense systems are built to undertake a rapid action in case of attack from incoming trajectories, which is not possible with a human operator.

Type of LAWS and Techniques

Types of LAWS can broadly divided in two following categories

  • Fully-Autonomous LAWS
  • Semi-Autonomous LAWS

Fully-Autonomous weapons have roughly four main functionality trigger, targeting, navigation, and mobility. While the semi-autonomous weapons have at least one of these functionality. One of the examples of semi-autonomous system precision guided munition that have triggering, mobility and navigation functions autonomously but the targeting done painting through laser guidance. Another example is S Samsung SGR-1 that an “autonomous” targeting functionality using sensors (heat and motion), but it does not have capability of navigation, mobility and triggering, because it a sentry-bot mounted on a defensive geometrical figure.

Artificial Intelligence and LAWS: How LAWS are related to AI?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is fuel to 4th industrial revolution. It can defined as the artificially imitating the intelligence of human but working or artificial intelligent algorithm has proved to be different from human. Some researchers than restated the definition of AI by evaluating 70 other definitions by saying that it is the ability of an agent to achieve a goal in a diverse environment.. Autonomous technology (AT) is the term, which results with the combination of robotics and artificial intelligence like dart.

An autonomous system is a machine that operates without human input or control. Hence for lethal autonomous weapons, artificial intelligence can be described as the performing the operations of a weapon or robotic machine with a computer algorithm as an agent rather than human. A well-established LAWs with the help of artificial intelligence algorithms identifies, locates, search and selects the target object and through robotic machinery attacks, picks and drops the target and move in a divergent environment.

Advancement in AI can boost the current state of lethal autonomous weapon systems that can also learn by their own.

Artificial Intelligence and LAWS: Dangers of LAWS

LAWS are insensitive. These weapons are as SMART as these considered. For example, these weapons can target wrong person and can unwittingly kill innocent civilians. These weapons can fall into the hands of criminals, who can use them to spread terror and destruction. These weapons developed using electronic chips and computer algorithm that are cheap and can be built unauthoritative agencies. Even with invincible capabilities, these weapons could hacked by computer geeks. It anticipated that these weapons can formed into small appliances that go anywhere making their access to every confidential place possible. This access breach ability can push distinguished lives and sources in menace. In short, these weapons can behave strangely than expected while periling human planet as a whole.

In 2015, nearly 4000 researchers from AI and robotics domain called for the ban of LAWS. In 2018, 3100 individual researchers and 290 CEO’s of AI based companies took the pledge not to be associated with the development of LAWS [1].

Lieu to ban, another approach is to regulate the usage of LAWS.  Policy makers and diplomats must analyse the control and features of lethal autonomous weapon systems. They must sort out some ways in which LAWS behave beneficiary rather than being catastrophic.


[2] Bento, Lucas (2017). “No Mere Deodands: Human Responsibilities in the Use of Violent Intelligent Systems Under Public International Law”Harvard Scholarship Depository.


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