At an arms expo show in Moscow that marked its commencement with an address by none other than Russian president Vladimir Putin (via Reuters), a rather embarrassing turn of events surfaced. A defense company showcased a dog-like robot armed with an RPG-26 anti-tank rocket launcher. So far, we’ve seen such robots moving around with a sniper rifle or a machine gun strapped to their backs, but the purportedly Russian creation was quite a statement, especially amid the bloody conflict with Ukraine.
According to Russian news outlet RIA Novosti, the robot dog outfitted with a rocket launcher is called M-81. In addition to its intended use for combat scenarios, the quadruped robot can also be deployed for patrolling and reconnaissance duties — plus, with proper modifications, it can reportedly also be used for relief efforts in emergency operations and disaster-hit zones. The developers behind the robotic weapon told the state media outlet that it was inspired by the bionics of a dog.
However, there were a lot of red flags from the get-go. Starting with the company behind it, Russian investigative outlet The Insider dug into the history of Intellect Machines JSC and found that it was only registered in April 2022 and its address was linked to a regular apartment building in St. Petersburg. But that’s only the surface of the story here because the war robot was also camouflaged in black covers — seemingly not for security reasons, but to hide the apparent Chinese origins of the machine.
A Chinese import covered in black
The M-81 robot dog strutting around with a rocket launcher on its back is apparently a slightly modified — or a blatantly ripped off — version of the Unitree Go1 robotic dog that is made by a Chinese company named Unitree Robotics. The robot, which is available in two versions called Air and Pro, is listed with a starting price of $2,700. It is even sold by a Russian website named Robosobaka.
According to a report from Russian technology outlet IXBT, the M-81 costs a million rubles, which roughly translates to around $16,600 based on the current conversion rates. It’s not hard to see the similarities here, especially the distinct optical eye hardware peeking from a small slit and the shape of the skull, which is easily discernible despite the black fabric covering the M-81.
Then there’s a question of viability and practicality. The Unitree website mentions that the Go1 robot can only lug around a payload of 6.6 pounds, which does not sound very promising for carrying and firing a rocket launcher that weighs more than the robot’s peak payload capacity when loaded with a grenade.
Weak foundation, bad history
Interestingly, the robot can also be seen following two soldiers wearing the same black disguise and visible eyes as the M-81 in a video that has since been pulled. Then there are the alleged security issues with the Unitree Go1. A universal remote control device called Flipper Zero, which is said have been invented by Russian engineers, can be used to remotely immobilize the robot with ease.
YouTube channel “I Did A Thing” also mounted a gun on the Unitree Go1, but it didn’t fare well against the recoil and proved to be a non-practical solution for warfare, repeating falling onto its side. This looks like another shady defense deal where a cheap off-the-shelf product is passed off as a military-grade product and sold to defense agencies for fat profits. There’s already some precedent for that.
According to an investigation that uncovered an alleged scam worth about 443 million rubles (approximately $7.4 million), cheap parts were bought from Chinese sources for the Orlan-10 reconnaissance drones and sold at vastly inflated rates. A locally produced single-board computer called “Repka” that was supposed to replace foreign alternatives like the Raspberry Pi range also turned out to be a Chinese import named Allwinner H5 that is readily available on AliExpress. It can’t be said with certainty whether the M-81 has been tweaked or reinforced, but the fact that a military-grade product is nothing but a toy robotic dog is quite a fascinating turn of events.