A Robotic Sentry For Korea's Demilitarized Zone

PHOTO: Kim Dong-Joo/AFP/Getty Images

Go ahead, make its day.

A new gun-toting sentry robot, developed by Samsung Techwin Co. for the South Korean government, may soon be coming to a disputed border near you. The SGR-A1 robot uses a low-light ­camera and pattern recognition software to distinguish humans from animals or other objects and, if necessary, can fire its builtâ''in machine gun—a Daewoo K3.

Myung Ho Yoo, a principal research engineer at Samsung’s Optics & Digital Imaging Division in Seongnam City, just southeast of Seoul, says the robot is the first of its kind to be commercialized. South Korea’s need for such a robot is clear, he says. Unlike the border between the United States and Mexico or even those separating Israel from the occupied territories, the demilitarized zone that stretches for 250 kilometers between South and North Korea is patrolled along its entire length. With one guard post every 50 meters along the southern side, two guards per post, and twelve shifts per day, the man-years spent on guard duty quickly add up.

The Samsung robot packs a 5-­millimeter, Korean-made light machine gun. Should it detect an intruder, ”the ultimate decision about shooting should be made by a human, not the robot,” says Yoo, who led the team that designed the robot. But the robot does have an automatic mode, in which it can make the decision.

The machine’s real innovation is its color camera, which can pinpoint a target from up to 500 meters away in illumination down to 0.008 lux (lumens per square meter), about the same as a starlit night. The robot has three such cameras, two of which work in stereo for surveillance and tracking while the third zooms in for targeting. A digital video recorder captures data for up to 60 days at a time. By calling up the robot’s ID number, operators back in Seoul can also see in real time what is happening in the field.

For use in the DMZ, the sentry bot doesn’t need to distinguish friend from foe. ”When you cross the line, you’re automatically an enemy,” Yoo says. He wouldn’t say whether the robot has actually been deployed in the DMZ but did note that units are currently being assembled and tested at the company’s factory in Changwon, near Pusan. Samsung is also looking to deploy the robot—minus the gun, but perhaps with some sort of nonlethal weapon—at airports, prisons, and nuclear power plants, among other places. There’s no price tag as yet, but Yoo estimates it will be in the US $80 000 to $100 000 range.

By deploying the robots, Yoo thinks his government may be able to significantly reduce the mandatory two years of military service that all young Korean men now serve. His own son is a freshman in college and will soon be eligible for the army. ”My son likes this robot,” he says.

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