Battlefield Robots Leap From Science Fiction to Reality

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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.

For more technology news, scroll down.

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