From the lab to the battlefield

Robots partly built at McGill set for deployment in Afghanistan

Military research at McGill has a long history.

Beginning in 1984, the campaign “Demilitarize McGill” advocated for the crafting of a policy and the prohibition of military research at the University. That same year, journalists from The Daily discovered research into Fuel Air Explosives at McGill funded by the Canadian Department of Defense. In 1986, Senate – the University’s highest academic governing body – implemented the Regulations on Research Policy, a set of ethical policies that included guidelines for animal and human research.

Military research, however, was not mentioned.

Two years later, research into Fuel Air Explosives once again became an issue at McGill.

In 2001, mechanical engineering professor David Frost began working on thermobaric bombs, an explosive device that can produce blast waves for a much longer duration than those found in conventional explosives.

In March 2010, Senate passed new Regulations on Conduct of Research Policy that ommitted the ethical regulations proposed by a new Demilitarize McGill, revived after a lull of nearly twenty years.

Senate’s decision came a year after Associate Provost (Policies & Procedures) William Foster presented a draft of the policy to Demilitarize McGill.

The draft, which was also showed to then SSMU VP (University Affairs) Nadya   Wilkinson, contained a passage which explicitly called for the creation of a formal system of approval which would give the senior administration oversight for research with harmful potential.

The section was erased at the first reading of the policy.

“The policy is ready to be adopted right now, and every month that goes by without having a document like this is dangerous [and] is not good for the University. We need this to come in force as soon as possible,” then-Vice-Principal (Research & International Relations) Denis Thérien said in a 2010 article in The Daily.

At the Senate session where the Policy was discussed, Senator Darin Barney noted that the “previous section on research funded by military sources did not assume that all research from those sources was harmful, but instead was based on the premise that research funded by military sources was more liekly to have harmful applications than other granting agencies.”

Student Senator Ivan Neilson said “that the amendment does not mention military research, but instread restricts itself to harmful applications. He agreed that what constitutes harmful research is subjective and that is why the responsibility is placed on the researcher.”

A number of professors at McGill are currently involved in scientific research whose results often have military applications. Financed by large defense firms, the research is conducted on campus or, in some cases, at private firms.

In 2003, after a 12-year tenure at McGill, robotics professor Martin Buehler brought two robots from the McGill Centre for Intelligent Machines (CIM) to Boston Dynamics, a U.S. engineering company.

RHex, one of the robots brought to Boston Dynamics, was partially built at McGill and was financed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency responsible for the development of new technologies for the U.S. military. RHex is equipped with a built-in camera and was designed to provide unmanned reconnaissance for soldiers in battle.

According to the Army Times, a weekly newspaper that caters to U.S. soldiers, several RHex robots were deployed for testing to Afghanistan in May.

Buehler later led a $12-million project in 2005, called “Big Dog,” to construct a robotic mule capable of transporting equipment to soldiers over rough terrain. The program received an additional $32 million grant in 2009 for the development of an upgraded version.

Another robot, AQUA, derived from the original RHex architecture and capable of functioning underwater, is currently being developed at CIM under the supervision of computer science professor Gregory Dudek. Despite its resemblance to RHex, Meyer Nahon – a professor linked to the project – insists that AQUA is designed to “assess marine habitats and biodiversity on coral reefs.”

However, Nahon said that  “some researchers are working much more directly with military applications” and that there was “clearly” an issue with funding from defense firms.

According to Nahon, professors conducting applied research with direct military funds are not devoid of responsibility; the ethical burden, however, should not be solely placed on them.

“Maybe the University should have a policy on this,” he added.

But for more theoretical research, the problem is not in the research itself, Nahon said. “The place where control has to be made is where it is going to be used.”