Battle bot: the future of war?
Sharpshooting robots evoke 'Terminator.' The more pertinent question is how these automated soldiers will transform military conflict.
They've spied on the enemy, sniffed for deadly chemical and radioactive emissions, and sacrificed themselves to detonate terrorist bombs. Now robots are ready to strap on guns and fight the battles too.Skip to next paragraph
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This spring, the United States armed forces are expected to deploy 18 Talon robots to Iraq. The semi-autonomous machines will be capable of firing rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and rockets with better accuracy than human soldiers. They're the latest step in a surge of battlefield "bots" that are increasingly shouldering the military's most dangerous jobs.
"Terminator" they're not. Only a human soldier using radio controls from a distance has the ability to "squeeze the trigger." But if battle bots ever do take on the bulk of frontline fighting, the results could transform military strategy.
"It's going to change the fundamental equation of war," says John Pike, a security policy analyst who runs the respected website globalsecurity.org. The evolution of war is at its midpoint, Mr. Pike says. "First you had human beings without machines. Then you had human beings with machines. And finally you have machines without human beings."
While robots firing weapons on their own may be a decade or more away, even today's remote-controlled versions have changed the rules, he adds. By turning war into "a video game," the machines make it much easier for soldiers to kill without remorse by putting the human operator at "one remove" from the act of killing.
Fighting robots would be "on the short list" of seminal events in all of military history, he says, right alongside the development of iron weapons, gunpowder, and the atomic bomb.
In the air, an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft developed by the US, the Predator, first flew over the Bosnia conflict in 1995. More recently, Predators have fired Hellfire missiles against ground targets in Iraq.
On the ground, the military has used bomb-disposal bots for years. In Afghanistan and Iraq, these machines have carved out a distinguished service record.
Among them: PackBots, a small tracked vehicle made by IRobot Corp. in Burlington, Mass. They "were carried in backpacks into the hills of Afghanistan to explore the caves where Al Qaeda were holed up and the Taliban had weapons caches," says Colin Angle, cofounder and CEO of IRobot.
Equipped with an arm to grip or carry objects, the machine may probe the carcass of a cow or goat, a favorite place for insurgents to plant explosives. Two small flippers on the front enable it to go up stairs. It's waterproof, capable of driving across shallow rivers, and rugged. One PackBot exploring a cave in Afghanistan fell 25 feet, righted itself, and reestablished communication with its handlers outside the cave, Mr. Angle says.
PackBots are now being used every day to detect roadside bombs in Iraq. "We occasionally get postcards saying, 'Thank you, you saved a life today,' " Angle says. "We've gotten two robots back in boxes just shredded and blown up. Robots come back with holes in them from shrapnel."
The Talons, due this spring, aren't the first armed robots in Iraq. South Korea reportedly has deployed two robot snipers with rifles with its forces in Arbil. Their computer-guided guns are said to hit their targets with lethal accuracy nearly 100 percent of the time.
No single technological breakthrough is driving the rise in battlefield bots. It's simply that their high-tech components continue to become smaller, faster, and cheaper. The robots are built with so many "off the shelf" parts available to consumers that they're sometimes called "PC bots." Proven civilian technologies like global positioning systems (GPS) are reducing the need to develop expensive proprietary systems.
"There's a lot of money going into all aspects of robotics in their application for military use," says Dan Kara, editorial director of Robotics Trends Inc., in Northborough, Mass. Military personnel are attending consumer-oriented robotics conferences just to hunt for fresh ideas or technologies, he says.
The US is looking at robots to accomplish three goals: reduce casualties, save money, and perform more effectively than a human could, he adds.