Rise of the Machines

Long the dream of science fiction writers and military planners alike, the armed services robot is becoming a reality. Drew Turney investigates.


You might be surprised to know robotic weapons first appeared in the Second World War with the Nazi's Goliath tracked mine. Measuring 2ft x 4ft x 1ft, the miniature tank was packed with up to 100kg of explosive and controlled by a hidden operator who sent commands to the device via long radio cables.

The Goliath was expensive, slow and didn't have much ground clearance. All brave Polish Home Army soldiers needed do when the Goliath was deployed during the Warsaw Uprising was run from hiding to cut the command cables, immobilising it.

Computers, communications technology, optics and materials development have advanced army robots considerably since those days, and programmes in development and in the field are as varied as the battle conditions armies operate in.

"Robotic weapons first appeared in the Second World War with the Nazi's Goliath tracked mine."

They take the form of everything from unmanned aircraft to power-assisted super-suits that heal injuries and allow the wearer to jump over buildings with rocket-powered boots (in development since 2002 at MIT).

And in our wired age they might not even take physical form. Software-based intelligence or cyber-offensive agents are in development and deployment under the threat of terrorism.

The advantages of robot armies are obvious. Humans aren't the best-designed combat systems, needing sleep and food and being far more susceptible to intangible forces such as bad judgement or low morale.

It makes sense to replace them with vehicles that propel themselves or outlandish designs suited to specific combat conditions. Almost any cognitive speciality can be developed, from the ability to see in the dark to immunity from radioactive or biological weapons traces.

AUTONOMY

Project Alpha was the name of a now-disbanded US Joint Forces Command analysis group whose task was to bring together the efforts of the US Army, Navy and Air Force defence robotics programmes.

"Programmes in development and in the field are as varied as the battle conditions armies operate in."

Only several months into the Iraq war, leader of Project Alpha's Unmanned Effects Team Gordon Johnson explained how one of the aims of robotics was self-management.

"We call them tactical autonomous combatants because they'll operate largely autonomously with some limited human supervision," he explained. "We're talking about where we can and where we have the capability of replacing humans at a tactical level."

Taking human frailties out of the loop and letting robots make as many decisions as possible certainly limits human error, but there are many skills robots simply can't replicate.

Aside from simple ones like adaptable mobility and dexterity, robots have no powers of strategy based on countless and sometimes unconscious variables. The answer seems to be removing humans to the level of remote operators, but the 'sweet spot' of a fusion between robotic reflexes and steel skin and the instincts of a human soldier continues to elude researchers and engineers.

ROBOT MODELS

US technology provider Foster Miller produces the TALON. Its military name, SWORDS (special weapons observation reconnaissance detection system), is the combat-enabled model made especially for the US Army.

52kg (115lb) in weight, the TALON robot is operated remotely via a laptop-like device and the company claims it can navigate snow, water sand and stairs. It can remain on standby for seven days before recharging, or perform for 8.5 hours on operation. Various sensor payload arrays enable the TALON robot for ordnance disposal, reconnaissance or hazardous material detection as well as combat.

According to a story on the Foster Miller website, the TALON is also very tough. Blown off a Humvee roof and plunged off a bridge into a river, the operators used the remote control to drive the unit out of the river and up the bank for retrieval.

"Tactical autonomous combatants operate largely autonomously with limited human supervision."

The other robotic defence system in wide use is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). General Atomics produces the two most common models, the MQ-9 Reaper and the MQ-1 Predator.

Each one is an entire system rather than just an aircraft. A UAV is controlled from the ground and can perform high-level reconnaissance and weapons deployment. The more advanced Reaper is capable of flying at an altitude of up to 50,000ft, has a range of over 3,000nm and can deliver over 20 missiles.

One of the oldest examples of modern robotic weaponry is the Dutch-built Goalkeeper closed-in weapons system (CIWS). Operated by six navies around the world, including the Royal Navy, the system comprises an advanced radar system that tracks incoming fire, determines its trajectory and fires a conventional deck-mounted gun all without the input of a human operator.

Typical of the new generation of robotic soldiers is the PackBot, produced by US company iRobot. Like the TALON, the 7kg (15lb) unit can navigate a variety of uneven surfaces, including stairs, and iRobot offers six payload arrays for everything from mapping to sniper detection.

But robots are being deployed in more places than just the battlefield. The mobile detection assessment response system is a project developed jointly by the US Army and Navy that resulted in several robot models. They're deployed in warehouse and storage areas and tasked with watching for flooding, fires, intruders and monitoring inventory using RFID tags.

Acceding to The New Statesman magazine, the above examples are just the beginning. It reported in June 2006 that 'hundreds of research projects are under way at American universities and defence companies, backed by billions of dollars'.

PROVIDERS AND MARKET

There's a new generation of defence robot contractors. Consider for example a small reconnaissance vehicle called the Dragon Runner. According to project leader Greg Haines, "the small handheld controller was modelled on that of a PlayStation 2 console because that's what these 18 and 19-year-old marines have been playing with pretty much all of their lives."

"The other growth area for robotics is in domestic surveillance and law enforcement."

Another contractor – Macroswiss – describes itself as a 'commercial and military security and surveillance company' and markets itself with an innovation typical of the media age but a world away from the traditional marketing presence of the big company 'machine-shop' era.

Its website contains short animated videos that showcase its products, many of which are so full of thrills and action they could be mistaken for the trailer of upcoming computer games.

With an array of small camera technology mounted on helmets, in guns and more, Macroswiss places great emphasis on correctly identifying combatants while keeping both the operator and innocent parties out of harm's way.

Along with the changing face of the companies who make fighting robots are their markets. iRobot markets a suite of robots for tasks like cleaning out gutters and pools and a device that allows 'virtual visits' through the use of a camera and mike-mounted device.

The other growth area for robotics is in domestic surveillance and law enforcement. As Foster Miller's general manager Bob Quinn told the website robotictrends.com "We're seeing an increase in SWAT applications, where for example hostage negotiation can be enhanced by the use of a robot [if it] can be used to see, hear and speak in place of a police officer, who may be in discussions with a bad guy holding hostages behind a barricade.

"[Another] area is using robots carrying hazardous sensors to determine, for example in a tanker truck accident, if hazardous material is leaking. It's quick and safe to send in a properly equipped robot. None of these would be possible it were not for the extensive use of robots by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan."