In Afghanistan, a new robosoldier goes to war

The 'war on terror' is a testing ground for new technology

A squad of heavily armed American soldiers lines up single file outside a mud-walled compound in eastern Afghanistan, ready to burst inside.

Just around the corner, technicians boot up Fester, a tank-like robot the size of a suitcase. An order comes over the radio: The soldiers are to hold their positions, but the robot is authorized to enter the building.

A crowd of curious Afghans watches as Fester zips backward, fixes his electronic eyeballs on an open doorway, lurches forward, and blunders into a wooden beam.

The villagers erupt into giggling fits.

But for the US military, Fester is no laughing matter; he's among the vanguard in a new type of warfare. In fact, the Afghan theater has been a testing ground for a variety of futuristic technologies.

Sitting in the broiling sun, US Army Col. Bruce Jette, the head of the robotics team, is both triumphant and apologetic: "Today is the first time conventional forces have ever employed robots in a wartime environment."

Fester has his clumsy moments, and the high metal content of some of the caves in the area has confounded his sophisticated communications systems, but when engineers sort out the kinks, robots like Fester could revolutionize the way foot soldiers fight wars.

The radio-controlled, reconnaissance robosoldier can climb stairs, turn somersaults and roll along at about 9 m.p.h. Shockproof and waterproof, he has survived a plunge from a second-story window. Most important, Fester won't die if he's shot while exploring a cave or poking through a suspicious building.

Col. Jette's robotic comrade began proving his mettle after Sept. 11, when he probed the wreckage of the World Trade Center to test structural soundness.

"The same robot that helped with the recovery effort at the World Trade Center is now in Afghanistan trying to track down the people that did it," says Tom Frost, senior technical manager at iRobot, the Somerville, Mass., firm that manufactures a line of machines they call PackBots, of which the nicknamed Fester is a prototype.

Terrestrial machines are only the most recent gadgets to be deployed in Afghanistan.

In a historic first, an unmanned aerial drone, the Predator, launched a Hellfire antitank missile at an enemy target. The low-flying Predator, operated by the CIA, has been indispensable in disrupting command-and-control structures because its "eyes" make it hard for Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants to congregate even in small groups without being seen. The war in Afghanistan also saw the first operational flight of the Global Hawk, an Air Force unmanned surveillance plane that soars above 60,000 feet, loaded with high-tech snooping devices.

But for all their promise, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have their drawbacks. The Predator has trouble "seeing" the ground in less-than-ideal weather conditions, and the $3.2 million machine also has a nasty habit of plummeting to earth when it's not supposed to. The Global Hawk has had an even more dubious track record. Two of the $40.6 million aircraft have crashed since January, and the fleet has been grounded pending an investigation.

Ground-based robots have not yet proven that they can do what's expected of them, but neither have they suffered any spectacular failures.

Fester's first military field test is taking place in Narizah, near the Pakistani border. The machine is helping a battalion of the 101st Airborne Division search for Saif Rahman Mansour, an Al Qaeda operative and one of the most wanted men in Afghanistan. A soldier with an M-4 rifle leads the way, while Staff Sergeant John Petree plods along, the robot's two green plastic treads bulging from the top of his rucksack. "Fester could be lighter," suggests Petree.

Fester, a sibling in an Addams family of identical robots being tested in Afghanistan – including Morticia, Wednesday, Thing, and Pugsley – weighs 40 pounds. "I feel like Lurch," Petree says. "But saving a soldier's life is what this is all about," he adds. "I put this 'bot in a cave, it gets blown all to pieces, I don't care."

At $40,000 a pop, robots like Fester may seem expensive, but the price tag is modest if the machine can prevent a soldier from being killed in action.

The arrival of robots on the ground in Afghanistan is one of the fruits of the Tactical Mobile Robotics Program, a five-year, $50 million Pentagon effort to develop machines capable of carrying out dangerous tasks so that soldiers won't have to.

Jette, who holds a PhD in solid-state physics from MIT, has woven together robot technology with a wireless local area network and an 800mhz Pentium 3 processor that can make the error corrections required to talk to the robot while it's sending back video – a tricky proposition, especially during combat.

But Col. Jette, the deputy for operations at the Objective Force Task Force – charged with a broad mandate of revolutionizing the battlefield – acknowledges that "the robots can reduce, but not eliminate, the threats to humans."

Plans for upgrading the PackBot include a camera-mounted swivel arm to elevate its poodle's-eye view, low-frequency radio relays that will enhance its navigational abilities in the twists and turns of caverns, and offensive systems – a grenade launcher, perhaps, or twin mounted semi-automatic shotguns.

Fester wasn't able to track down Mansour, but Col. Patrick Fetterman, the battalion commander charged with carrying out tactical sweeps in Narizah, was glad to have the machine along. "I'm glad they're testing them," he says. "They could save lives."

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