Infantry: April 14, 2005

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The war in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to accelerate the development of combat robots. The U.S. Army expected combat robots to remain a research & development activity for another decade or so. But wars have a tendency to speed things up. And so it is that American troops are using hundreds of combat robots, and over a dozen different models, in Iraq. Where is all this going?

First, these robots arent really robots. They are remotely controlled vehicles. There are a few pure robots (meaning they operate independent of human control) that are used for security tasks, but not yet in combat zones. That said, the troops dont care. They want more remotely controlled vehicles, mainly because these dispensable gadgets are perfect for those dangerous situations grunts so frequently face. Things like cross the street and check out that building. Or, "go into the mouth of that cave and see if any bad guys are in there. In other words, these robots are perfect point men. Let the robot get killed if there are a lot of hostiles right around the corner. Much preferable to losing a soldier. 

Second, these combat robots still have lots of limitations. While the manufacturers have come up with some great controller hardware and software (borrowing heavily from the game console industry), youre still seeing much less, via the robots cameras and microphones, than a human would. Operators of these robots get quite an intense workout as they strain to figure out exactly who, or what, is down the hallway, or around the corner in a cave. Of course, if theres a bright flash on the control screen, and the robot stops responding, you know you have hostiles in there, along with a dead robot. 

Before September 11, 2001, most of these robots operated via cables, but now its mostly wireless (cables dont hack it on the battlefield). Wireless can be a bitch at times, as any cell phone or wi-fi user can tell you. Losing control of your robot because of a lost wireless connection can ruin your day. Eventually, this will be less of a problem. But for the present, it is a problem. 

Third, the little beasts are expensive ($50-200,000 and up), and the brass get angry if you lose too many of them. The robots are also still experimental, which is the explanation you are usually given when the little sucker reboots on you at an inopportune time.

Finally, because the robots are undergoing hothouse, wartime development, the troops are not getting a lot of standardized, battle tested wardroids, but rather a constantly changing array of new models, with new features, plus a few old ones that actually work this time. The latest wrinkle being deployed is robots with weapons. Remotely controlled weapons. No longer will the poor droids die when they encounter the enemy. Now they can shoot back. Actually, the armed robots are intended mainly for guard duty. The dark doorways and caves will continue to be the graveyard of brave kamikaze scout droids. This is because firing weapons via remote control is an evolving art. The tests have been promising, and the RWS (Remote Weapon System) used on the Stryker has had some success in combat. The RWS is, in effect, an immobile robot with a machine-gun, mounted on top of a Stryker vehicle. The weapon is operated by a guy inside the Stryker, which is remote enough. But the armed droids dont have the same mechanical and electronic controls of the RWS (which have been around for some years.) Combat robot developers are going to have to learn by trial and error what works. 

The remote operator of combat droids, and battlefield robots in general, has presented another opportunity. The army has much improved communications capabilities in the 21st century. Its become common to have some support troops left back in the States, because all you need do is have quick access to them. Satellite communications makes this possible. Its already occurred to battle robot designers that the operators could be back in the base, or back in the United States, for that matter. The advantages of this are many, not the least of which it puts fewer people on the battlefield, and at risk. This approach was, before 911, seen as a decade or more away. Now, engineers and troops are rigging up battlefield experiments. The troops like this, because they can have a large supply of operators available for their robots. The operators can be reservists, or combat troops back in the United States, or even civilians (retired or otherwise former soldiers). All manner of possibilities now open up. But the goal is still to have robots with sufficient onboard intelligence to follow simple orders, and never talk back. The perfect soldier.

Other nations are watching American developments with great interest. South Korea sent two robots to Iraq with its troops, and is planning to use robots to patrol parts of the DMZ. Its very labor intensive to try and 248 kilometers with troop patrols. Remotely controlled armed robots, and more sensors would give better coverage, with less grumbling from the troops.

Long a staple of science fiction, combat robots are now real, and growing smarter and more lethal.

 


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