Infantry: The Care And Rehabilitation Of Battlefield Robots

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December 4,2008: Iraq was the first war in which a large number of robots were used. At its peak, in 2007, there were nearly 2,000 small robots in Iraq. Many were damaged, although only 20 percent because of combat (gunfire, explosions), with the rest of the damage was from operator error. Whatever the case, these busted droids had to be fixed.

There small (under 100 pounds, and look like a miniature tank) droids were often a primary target for the terrorists. The most common use of these robots is to check out objects that might be roadside bombs. Terrorists will detonate their roadside bomb if they see a robot going to check it out, and will fire on the droids as well. But the robots are small, and rugged. They were hard to hit, or hurt. But operators often misused them. The most common damage was caused by having the mobile arm (that most robots have) pick up more weight than it was built for (usually less than ten pounds).

Users have come to rely on the droids for all sorts of things, and have adapted to the terrorist attacks on the droids, by treating the robots like "one of the team." Thus troops will provide covering fire for droids, as necessary, and will not send the robots out on suicide missions unless it's really important. They will also recover damaged droids, make battlefield repairs if they can (some guys have developed reputations as "droid medics").

Before long,  a droid hospital was established in Iraq (known officially as the "Joint Robotic Repair and Fielding Activity"). This operation was soon repairing about 400 broken or "wounded" droids a week. About that often, the staff there will have to deal with one or more teary eyed troops, carrying the blasted remains of their droid, and wanting to know if their little guy can be rebuilt. Many of these droids had been given names, which were painted on the robot chassis.

Eventually, it was realized that it would be cheaper to just put the damaged droids on the air transports that brought in supplies from Germany, and often flew back empty. A robot hospital was set up at an American base in Germany, where mechanics could more inexpensively repair the robots and fly them back to Iraq. The more badly damaged robots were sent to Germany, because the repairmen there were more expert at fixing the droids. This was because Germany was a non-combat area, where troops served for three years, rather than one year in Iraq. The U.S. Army does not yet have a specialty for droid repair, so vehicle, and other equipment, mechanics are assigned to the task. They have to learn on the job, often with the help of robot manufacturer engineers sent in to run short training courses. Most of the droids come from half a dozen different manufacturers, and each model is a little different. But with three years to devote to this kind of work, the repair technicians become quite expert.

 


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