Killer robot
US forces recently deployed remote-controlled robots equipped with automatic weapons in Iraq

The world is sleepwalking into an international robot arms race, a leading expert will warn today.

Prof Noel Sharkey fears increased research and spending on unmanned military systems by countries including the US, Russia, China and Israel will lead to the use of autonomous battlefield robots that can decide when to kill within a decade.

In a keynote speech he will also predict it is only a matter of time before robots become a standard terrorist weapon to replace suicide bombers.

Prof Sharkey, of the University of Sheffield's Department of Computer Science, is best known as a judge in the BBC television series Robot Wars. He will outline his fears in a speech at a conference on the ethics of unmanned military systems at the Royal United Services Institute, a respected defence think tank.

Prof Sharkey said yesterday: "There's a massive drive towards developing autonomous robots for more complex missions.

"We are rapidly moving towards robots that can make the decision to apply lethal force, when to apply it and who to apply it to. I think maybe we're taking about a 10-year time frame.

"If one country develops autonomous robots, it is clear that other countries will follow suit. What worries me is real soldiers can use common sense in situations such as deciding whether a woman is pregnant or carrying explosives. Robots do not.

"Neither can they make decisions about the proportional use of force. Most soldiers would not for example blow up a school full of children if there is a sniper on its roof, but who knows what a robot would do."

The American Department of Defence (DoD) last year published a 25-year plan to spend as £12 billion on robotic air, land and sea systems. US forces recently deployed the first battlefield robots equipped with automatic weapons in Iraq.

Talon Sword robots are versions of remote-controlled, track-wheeled bomb disposal devices that can be equipped with various weapons including machine guns and rocket launchers. Four are already in use by the 3rd Infantry Division and 80 more are on order.

Currently under international Laws of War humans must be part of any decision to use robots to kill, however the recent DoD programme outlined plans to make them increasingly autonomous.

Last year nine soldiers were killed in South Africa when an aircraft gun designed to target other aircraft, helicopters and cruise missiles automatically malfunctioned.

A trial at the Old Bailey two years ago heard how a gang of would-be terrorists discussed plans to strap bombs to remote controlled model aeroplanes.

Prof Sharkey warned that with the cost of components falling, military developments would inevitably be copied by terrorists.

He added it would cost around £250 for terrorists to improvise an unmanned aircraft to deliver explosives using a mobile phone with GPS technology and a model aeroplane.

"You could also make thousands of ground-based robots cheaply to replace suicide bombers. I have judged many robot competitions and I know how easy it is.

"Once the new weapons are out there, they will be fairly easy to copy. How long is it going to be before the terrorists get in on the act?

"There is an urgent need for national governments and the international community to assess the risks of these new weapons now rather than after they have crept their way into common use."