Imagine a cross between Optimus Prime and an Imperial Scout Walker from Star Wars and you have a window into the future of military weapons.
Japanese firm Sudobashi Heavy Industry has fused together the best of Michael Bay and George Lucas to build the Kurata, a four-ton wheeled robot that houses an operator in the armored hull similar to Tony Stark in his Iron Man suit. Once the driver is inside, the Kurata is then manipulated to carry out hydraulic-powered commands, all of which are currently nonlethal. Because Kuratas were designed for hobbyists, they come equipped with a full arsenal of water cannons, a mini gun replica that shoots pellets, and a targeting system that locks on to moving objects. Onboard sensors detect when the pilot smiles, giving the computers an automatic firing code for the mini gun.
Don’t expect similar government-funded prototypes to remain non-lethal for long.
Named after their designer Kogoro Kurata, these 13-foot tall metal behemoths tower over all other vehicles. Similar modern day Autobots will be menacing on future battlefields if developed countries design weapons after combat applications previously reserved for science fiction.
Part Iron Man, part Transformers, and part Star Wars, Kuratas are an exciting example of the exponential rate at which humans develop new technology, and then weave the resulting creations into everyday life. In this case, the application would be used for war, although I will note that Sudobashi denies they are manufacturing a weapons platform. Kuratas are reserved for the hobby enthusiast with $1.3 million to spare.
If redeveloped and weaponized, the Kurata could be useful in a variety of military engagements. An infantry unit crossing an open space or breaking through a fortified wall could use Kuratas as a shield, hiding behind its reinforced body while it pours out a number of potential projectiles. They could also be used to smash through enemy defenses previously impregnable without air or tank support. A more dexterous future version could run through gunfire to ferry wounded soldiers off the battlefield, absorbing bullets that would otherwise find human warriors.
Other than finding a way to make all that metal fly like a Transformer, there are significant engineering hurdles to solve before a platform like the Kurata could begin testing for combat. One speed bump is the weight of the armor needed to make such a system effective – deploying such a large bullet magnet wouldn't make sense unless it could withstand small and medium arms fire. Another hurdle is the method of movement. For a Transformers-style weapon to be able to set itself apart from more traditional mechanized armor, it will need to stand upright and walk. Surprisingly, these are two considerable design complications.
There is the possibility that future weapons similar to Kuratas wouldn’t even be robots, but instead be an upright version of a tank with one or two operators inside. Would it then defeat the purpose of sending more metal and less men into war when a human operator is still at risk?
What Kogoro Kurata started as a hobby might very well be the future of conventional armored warfare. It goes without saying that government agencies tasked with creating military technologies, like the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, are always brainstorming new weapons far more advanced than the average person’s imagination has an appetite for. If you can dream it, DARPA and others have already begun their work.
For those who want a Kurata of their own, below is a graphic with entry-level design options.
Follow the author on Twitter @AlexdeAvilaCA for more information on emerging technologies.