- For generations of science fiction writers the idea of
robotic hordes ruling the battlefield has been fertile ground for their
active imaginations. From "Star Wars" to "The Terminator",
the rise of these machines has been the fodder for some great entertainment.
- But while these extraordinary machines have captured
our imagination in both film and print, the reality of battlefield robots
is being played out on battlefields all over the globe.
- More R2D2 than C3PO, today's military robots are playing
life saving roles in both Afghanistan and Iraq. They fulfill missions either
too dangerous or impossible for humans to perform themselves. In the process
they not only give U.S. troops the tactical advantage but also save precious
- In fact, the contributions of military robots have become
so important to the forces in the field that the machines are quickly becoming
as commonplace and accepted as the rifle itself.
- And it is a tactical trend whose weight in value continues
to soar. So much so that by 2015 the U.S. Department of Defense has projected
that a full 1/3 of its future fighting force will be made up entirely of
- It's all part of $127 billion project, known as Future
Combat Systems that is being developed by the Defense Advanced Research
Agency (DARPA), whose mission is to ensure that the U.S forces maintain
their technological superiority. It is a transformation that is one of
the largest technology missions ever undertaken in American history.
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- But while the exploits of the many unmanned aerial drones
are now part of the common understanding, it is the ground variants of
these machines that are paying dividends to the boots on the ground today.
- Led by robots such as the TALON, produced by Foster Miller,
and various smaller robots made by iRobot (IRBT:NASDAQ), these new machines
are hard at work protecting the troops from their enemies.
- The TALON, in fact, played a large role in the now famous
battle of Tora Bora. These heavily armed mini-tanks were sent into the
areas where humans feared to tread, dispatching Al-Qaida fighters and searching
for the Bin Laden himself. And while these machines never did find our
elusive arch enemy, they did prove themselves to be an effective alternative
to putting troops at risk.
- Today these same types of machines are also being put
to use in Iraq. Along with the TALON, smaller variants of these robots
have proven themselves time and time again.
- Among them are the man-portable iRobot Packbot Tactical
EOD Mobile Robot designed to eliminate the dangerous improvised explosive
devices that have been so harmful to our troops in Iraq.
- Developed by the same company that produces the famous
Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, about 300 of these Packbots have been deployed
in Iraq. Since then they have been involved thousands of Explosive Ordinance
Device (EOD) missions.
- These rugged track wheeled devices are controlled by
users on the ground using the same type of joystick controls that are commonplace
among video gamers. Working form the safety of a vehicle soldiers use a
monitor to guide the robot to the weapon and are able to disable it without
having to go to the extreme of sending in a man with a clunky bomb suit.
- The bottom line for these robotic exploits is saved American
lives. As a Navy chief said commenting on a Packbot destroyed in the line
of duty, "When a robot dies you don't have to write a letter to its
- Other robots produced by the company include the PackBot
Scout and the Packbot Explorer, which allow soldiers to perform reconnaissance
and surveillance missions from safe positions.
- Above: Visualization of a Venca BEAR Robot
- The company has even teamed up with John Deere to produce
a ground vehicle based on the popular M-Gator design. The autonomous vehicle
is designed to serve numerous important roles including acting as an unmanned
scout, a perimeter guard, and a supply carrier. Versions of the prototype
are currently being produced and could see battlefield action in the near
- But not all of these new robots are designed to search
and destroy. Some even work to save lives directly. In fact, one new device
is designed to bring wounded soldiers off of the battlefield and has been
funded by Congress to the tune of $1.1 million for 2007.
- Built by Vecna Robotics, the Battlefield Extraction-Assist
Robot (BEAR) has hydraulic arms that can support injured soldiers weighing
up to 400 lbs. Its system of wheels and tracks allow it to climb up hills
or roll over rough terrain while staying low to the ground. Working from
a safe position its controllers will be able to rescue the wounded without
exposing the unit's medics to hostile fire.
- But as amazing and as important as these current robots
are, they are nothing compared to the machines that DARPA is working on
and will deploy in the future. The truth is that by 2035 the U.S. military
plans to march its first force made up entirely of autonomous robot/soldiers
onto the battlefield. And when they do, the Terminator of movie fame will
be that much closer to reality.
- It's the beginning of a brave new world- one in which
soldiers no longer have the monopoly on death and dying.
- Let's just hope that all of those science fiction writers
aren't as prophetic as they are entertaining because the rise of the machines
is an unstoppable trend in military thinking