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

Fighting robots are currently in development for land, sea, and air use.

Cliff Hudson directs the U.S. Department of Defense Joint Robotics Program, which has been charged by the U.S. Congress to unify the development and deployment of U.S. military robotics.

Hudson said, "A lot of [robots] are in theater right now in Iraq and Afghanistan supporting the Explosive Ordinance Disposal mission."

U.S. fighters are using small tactical ground vehicles that weigh no more than 50 to 100 pounds (25 to 45 kilograms). The robots resemble small, remote controlled tanks of various shapes and sizes and are able to carry an array of optional equipment tailored to their tasks.

The robots' moderate weight enables military personnel to easily transport and deploy the devices in the field.

Laird, the SPAWAR supervisor, noted that insurgents in Iraq are employing guerilla tactics, placing "explosives in concrete blocks, dead animals, anything, and blowing them up remotely as [U.S. soldiers] pass by."

Hudson said the U.S. military, in response, is "getting small unmanned ground vehicles into [military personnel's] hands, because [the robots] give the war fighter probably anywhere from 300 feet to 3,000 feet [90 to 915 meters] in standoff from ordinance to do a high-quality inspection."

The bomb-sniffing robots use high-resolution cameras with zooming capability and thermal imagers, which could identify a person hiding in bushes, for example. Some robots also carry microphones that can detect sounds from explosive devices or people.

Most of these robots feature an arm, or manipulator, able to lift objects to examine their undersides and look beneath them. If that sounds dangerous, it is—but only to the robots. Though the goal is to disarm explosives without detonating them, the loss of a U.S. $50,000-robot is seen positively.

"We have lost robots because we [were] doing inspections—and that makes us ecstatic," Laird said. "That means somebody didn't lose an arm. That's why were doing this. So those losses are successes."

Unmanned Aerials

Laird's group is also working on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) automated mission system—basically a mobile airstrip and gas station where unmanned aerial vehicles can land, refuel, and relaunch.

Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, are collaborating on the project. They aim to incorporate some of the same automation technology they developed for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission.

The new UAV mission system could boost the range and airtime of unmanned reconnaissance and surveillance flights. The fuel-carrying capacity of today's UAVs prevents them from staying aloft for more than an hour.

"It's not a lot of airtime on the location where you want to be. And when you have return to the same spot to refuel, you're kind of stuck there," Laird said. "If we can move the landing and launch site, you'll get a lot more mission time at the destination."

Lethal Force

Given their military missions, robots have also been developed to carry lethal firepower.

Unmanned aircraft have already been extensively developed and tested to fire missiles.

Armed land-based robots include the Marine Corps Gladiator system, a heavily armored, 2,000-pound (900-kilogram) vehicle that moves on tracks or wheels.

The Gladiator was developed for urban combat situations. The vehicle can precede troops, assess the dangers of a locale, and respond to attacks with extremely lethal force if necessary. Current prototypes are equipped with M240 machine guns.

"For the future, the Gladiator system is going to be tele-operated—that's 100 percent human controlled at a standoff distance—by someone getting video feedback from the vehicle," Hudson said.

Today's soldiers adapt to new technology as quickly as it can be developed and deployed, perhaps because many of them have a head start.

"In the tele-operated systems, the generation [of soldiers] we're seeing now are very used to video games and that kind of control environment," Hudson said.

Meanwhile, Hudson said he envisions that sometime in the future, military robots will include semiautonomous and autonomous systems that rely exclusively on sensors and computer technology, not human operators, to complete missions.

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