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.
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.
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.
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