Battlefield Robots Leap From Science Fiction to Reality

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 1, 2004

Once the fantasy of science fiction, battlefield robots are now a reality.

"The whole idea is to take the war fighter out of harm's way," Robin Laird said. Laird is supervisor of the Unmanned Systems Branch of the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR) in San Diego.

"In my mind, someday we'll be doing battle with robots—not killing people," said Laird, whose program serves all four branches of the U.S. military.

The military robots currently available, however, are not nearly as sophisticated as those that are sometimes portrayed by Hollywood films. "We're probably 10 to 20 years behind the least sophisticated system you'd see in something like Terminator 3," Laird said. "But we're getting there."

Examples include:

• the Predator, an unmanned aircraft with surveillance and missile capability that has flown hundreds of missions in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq; and

• the UGV (unmanned ground vehicle) Mini-flair, a large vehicle built on the chassis of a John Deer Skid Steer bulldozer that was first used for countermine duty in Bosnia.

Private industry and the military are also focusing on the development of smaller, portable robots that can be carried by individual soldiers and deployed where needed.

Military robots can be used for disposing of explosives, combat engineering tasks like clearing mines or placing explosives, reconnaissance, detecting nuclear and biological agents, and hazardous materials cleanup, among others tasks.

United States military personnel face many of these challenges today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Researchers say those combat situations provide an ideal test lab for the new robotic technology.

"Even if some of these projects are only at 80 percent [completion], they can still be used to save lives by getting remote control systems into action and [soldiers] out of the way," Laird said.

Diffusing Explosives

Continued on Next Page >>


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