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Unmanned drone attacks and shape-shifting robots: War's remote-control future

The Pentagon already includes unmanned drone attacks in its arsenal. Next up: housefly-sized surveillance craft, shape-changing 'chemical robots,' and tracking agents sprayed from the sky. What does it mean to have soldiers so far removed from the battlefield?

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / October 22, 2011

Pakistanis hold up a burning mock drone aircraft during a May rally against drone attacks in Peshawar. In 2009, the Brookings Institution estimated that unmanned drone attacks were killing about 10 civilians for every 1 insurgent in Pakistan.

K. Pervez/Reuters

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washington; and kandahar, Afghanistan

In the shadow of a heavily fortified enemy building, US commanders call in a chemical robot, or what looks like a blob. They give it a simple instruction: Penetrate a crack in the building and find out what's inside. Like an ice sculpture or the liquid metal assassin in "Terminator 2," the device changes shape, slips through the opening, then reassumes its original form to look around. It uses sensors woven into its fabric to sample the area for biological agents. If needed, it can seep into the cracks of a bomb to defuse it.

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Soldiers hoping to eavesdrop on an enemy release a series of tiny, unmanned aircraft the size and shape of houseflies to hover in a room unnoticed, relaying invaluable video footage.

A fleet of drones roams a mountain pass, spraying a fine mist along a known terrorist transit route – the US military's version of "CSI: Al Qaeda." Days later, when troops capture suspects hundreds of miles away, they test them for traces of the "taggant" to discover whether they have traversed the trail and may, in fact, be prosecuted as insurgents.

Welcome to the battlefield of the future. Malleable robots. Insect-size air forces. Chemical tracers spritzed from the sky. It's the stuff of science fiction.

But these are among the myriad futuristic war­fighting creations currently being developed at universities across the country with funds from the US military. And the future, in many cases, may not be too far off.

Engineering students at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., for instance, are now experimenting with chemical taggants on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) like the ones being used in Afghanistan. Sure, the shape-changing chemical robot that slips through cracks may be more Ray Bradbury than battlefield-ready. But the Pentagon, in its perpetual quest to find the next weapon or soldier-saving device – and with scientific assurances that it's possible – is already investing millions to develop it.

"We're not about 20 years, or 10 years, or even five years away – a lot of this could be out in the field in under two years," says Mitchell Zatkin, former director of programmable matter at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Pentagon's premier research office.

The development of a new generation of military robots, including armed drones, may eventually mark one of the biggest revolutions in warfare in generations. Throughout history, from the crossbow to the cannon to the aircraft carrier, one weapon has supplanted another as nations have strived to create increasingly lethal means of allowing armies to project power from afar.

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