Weapons: Angst Over Arming Robots


June 21, 2006: Once American infantry got their hands on reliable, and portable, UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles), they did two things. First, they used their small robots as much as possible, especially for dangerous jobs like checking for roadside bombs, or bad guys lurking inside buildings or caves. The second thing the troops did was ask the UGV manufacturer to put weapons on the robots. So far, the Department of Defense has backed away from proposals to arm these MTRS (Man Transportable Robotic System), because of safety concerns. It's not that the armed robots would just be turned on, and turned lose. They would be controlled by their human operator, but there is a reluctance to having the troops equipped with an armed robot. Such systems are more prone to friendly fire incidents. But the troops want them, and the manufacturers of the robots, are spending their own money to develop armed versions of its UGVs.

One of these armed robots is the PakBot, made by iRobot. There are several models of Packbot, but the most popular job for these remote controlled vehicles (that look like a miniature tank, with an extendable arm where the turret should be) is checking out possible roadside bombs, or booby traps, or the insides of caves or buildings believed to hold hostile gunmen. For over a decade, there have been larger (over a hundred pounds) remote control vehicles like this for bomb squads. But better designs, and smaller electronics, have made the man-portable (under 50 pounds) units possible. Two years ago, there were several different MTRS systems in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the iRobot equipment has emerged as the most popular, and most effective. This means troops no longer have to get close to possible bombs, and risk getting blown up when nearby terrorists detonate the device.

But for combat use, PackBot has limitations. Human troops can move a lot faster, and speed is often more important than having an expendable trooper (the robot) in the lead. Armed with a weapon, say a shotgun for opening a locked door, the robot would be more useful. An armed robot would also be more effective when taking the lead in many urban combat situations. Currently, troops continue to find new uses for the unarmed version, like spotting snipers, standing guard and carrying remotely controlled explosives to targets covered by enemy fire. But to be really useful, the troops want armed droids.

Another MTRS manufacturer, Foster-Miller, has spent over a year convincing the Department of Defense to allow one of its armed (with a 5.56mm machine-guns and 200 rounds of ammo) Talon robots to be sent to Iraq for testing. The Talon IIIB is finally going, but it will be used as a 125 pound armed sentry, not a fifty pound combat droid. The PackBot is the kind of combat robot a soldier can carry to a window, through it in, and have it move around and check the place out.

So iRobot, and the troops, are trying to talk the Department of Defense into allowing battlefield tests of armed robots. It will probably happen, even if it makes a lot of people outside the combat zone nervous.




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