Battle bot: the future of war?
Sharpshooting robots evoke 'Terminator.' The more pertinent question is how these automated soldiers will transform military conflict.
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A robot that costs more than $200,000 each, such as a Talon, might seem expensive. But in the grisly mathematics of war, so is months of training for a highly skilled soldier who must be replaced if he or she is killed or severely wounded in battle. If a robot is destroyed, no letter of condolence must be written to a grieving parent or spouse, and no list of human casualties grows longer.Skip to next paragraph
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Robots also could substantially reduce the number of soldiers needed, Pike points out. Automated trucks, for example, would reduce the need for truck drivers, which would lead to fewer cooks making meals for the drivers, fewer guards protecting the cooks, and so on.
Besides the Talons, which have been converted from bomb-disposal bots, other American robots are being developed for the battlefield. R-Gator, built by IRobot, will use off-the-shelf robotics to perform dangerous missions autonomously. The robot, based on the John Deere M-Gator military vehicle now in Iraq, will serve as an unmanned scout or "point man," guard a perimeter, do reconnaissance, or haul supplies up to 1,400 pounds guided by GPS. Operated manually or by remote control, R-Gator can be directed to follow soldiers or a set route. The first R-Gators are scheduled to roll off the assembly line by mid-2005. Full production is planned to begin in 2006.
A little farther down the pipeline are Robotic Extraction Vehicles, basically armored ambulances that could rumble to the front lines unmanned and return with wounded soldiers.
"I think you're going to see a lot of sentry robots," Mr. Kara says, that will perform tasks that are dangerous, boring, or repetitive. One human at a console could monitor several sentry robots patrolling a military installation, for example.
While today's robots can take some actions on their own, such as following prescribed routes, they still rely on human handlers. To act as independent fighters they'll need to move autonomously. That means they must havesophisticated vision systems that not only see what is around them but also interpret what they see. Like human soldiers, robots will need to know where they are and how to detect and avoid obstacles.
To advance research in the field, the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will hold its second "grand challenge" this year, offering a $2 million prize to any robotic vehicle that can maneuver across 175 miles of desert terrain with no human aid. All the robots entered in last year's grand challenge failed miserably.
If such technological challenges are met, robot armies could someday become so powerful that the idea of war itself could become unthinkable. Pike wonders if the US might have sent an army of battle bots into Rwanda, Sudan, or Liberia to quell genocidal wars if it knew that few of its human troops would risk harm.
Or would war become easier? If other countries develop their own military robots, Pike muses, "what would it look like if millions of Chinese robots came crawling out of the Pacific Ocean and started storming across California?"
Maybe a lot like a "Star Wars" movie?
• 1922: Czech playwright Karel Capek coins the term "robot." Once taught to fight wars, his fictional machines take over the world.
• 1942: Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov pens "Runaround," which sets forth three laws of robotics, the first of which is that robots must not harm humans.
• 1961: General Motors brings online the first industrial robot - Unimate - in a New Jersey plant.
• 1970: Shakey, by SRI International, becomes the first mobile robot controlled by artificial intelligence.
• 1994: Dante II, built by Carnegie Mellon scientists, explores an Alaskan volcano, collecting gas samples.
• 1999: Sony introduces the first robotic dog, Aibo.
• 2003: Household robots start to catch up with those in factories. By year's end, the world has put 800,000 industrial and 607,000 household units to work (almost all of the latter are robot lawnmowers). By 2007, an estimated 1 million industrial and 4.1 million household robots will be in use.
Sources: Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries; NASA; The BBC; United Nations