Wired December 01, 2004
More Robot Grunts Ready for Duty
By Noah Shachtman
ORLANDO, Florida -- Hunting for guerillas, handling roadside bombs, crawling across the caves and crumbling towns of Afghanistan and Iraq -- all of that was just a start. Now, the Army is prepping its squad of robotic vehicles for a new set of assignments. And this time, they'll be carrying guns.
As early as March or April, 18 units of the Talon -- a model armed with automatic weapons -- are scheduled to report for duty in Iraq. Around the same time, the first prototypes of a new, unmanned ambulance should be ready for the Army to start testing. In a warren of hangar-sized hotel ballrooms in Orlando, military engineers this week showed off their next generation of robots, as they got the machines ready for the war zone.
"Putting something like this into the field, we're about to start something that's never been done before," said Staff Sgt. Santiago Tordillos, waving to the black, 2-foot-six-inch robot rolling around the carpeted floor on twin treads, an M249 machine gun cradled in its mechanical grip.
For years, the Pentagon and defense contractors have been toying with the idea of sending armed, unmanned ground vehicles, or UGVs, into battle. Actually putting together the robots was a remarkably straightforward job, said Tordillos, who works in the Army's Armaments Engineering and Technology Center.
Ordinarily, the Talon bomb-disposal UGV comes equipped with a mechanical arm, to pick up and inspect suspicious objects. More than a hundred of the robots are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan, with an equal amount on order from the UGV's maker, Waltham, Massachusetts-based firm Foster-Miller.
For this new, lethal Talon model, Foster-Miller swapped the metal limb for a remote-controlled, camera-equipped, shock-resistant tripod, which the Marines use to fire their guns from hundreds of feet away. The only difference: The Marines' version relies on cables to connect weapons and controllers, while the Talon gets its orders to fire from radio signals instead.
"We were ready to send it a month ago," Tordillos said. Navigating the Pentagon bureaucracy and putting together the proper training manuals are what's keeping the Talon stateside, for now.
Back in December 2003, the Army's 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division tested an armed Talon in Kuwait. Now, the brigade wants 18 of the UGVs to watch the backs of its Stryker armored vehicles.
Four cameras and a pair of night-vision binoculars allow the robot to operate at all times of the day. It has a range of about a half-mile in urban areas, more in the open desert. And with the ability to carry four 66-mm rockets or six 40-mm grenades, as well as an M240 or M249 machine gun, the robots can take on additional duties fast, said GlobalSecurity.org director John Pike.
"It's a premonition of things to come," Pike said. "It makes sense. These things have no family to write home to. They're fearless. You can put them places you'd have a hard time putting a soldier in."
It's the same goal Army-funded researchers are keeping in mind as they develop an unmanned ambulance. The Robotic Extraction Vehicle, or REV, is a 10-foot-long, 3,500-pound robot that can tuck a pair of stretchers -- and life-support systems -- beneath its armored skin. The idea is for battlefield medics to stabilize injured soldiers, and then send them back to a field hospital in the REV. But the REV also carries an electrically powered, 600-pound, six-wheeled robot with a mechanical arm that can drag a wounded fighter to safety if there isn't a flesh-and-blood soldier around.
Ordinarily, it takes two to four men to get the wounded out of harm's way. Patrick Rowe, with Applied Perception of Pittsburgh, said he hopes the REV will cut that number, maybe by half. The firm is scheduled to show off prototypes of the robots to the Army's Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center in March.
But this early version will be limited, Howe said. Ideally, the REV would drive around on its own, with no help from human operators. In practice, the robot would either be driven by a person with a joystick, or it would get around by itself by sticking to carefully preplanned routes. As the limited performances in the Pentagon's robot off-road rally in March showed, unmanned drivers are still pretty lousy at handling open, unknown terrain.
That's one of the reasons why iRobot's new UGV will still have a steering wheel inside, so it can be driven by a human, too. The company -- best known for its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner and the PackBot UGVs that the Army has been using to clear bombs and explore suspected terrorist hideouts in the Middle East -- is now working with agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere to build a cargo-hauling robot.
The M-Gator is a six-wheeled, diesel mini-Jeep that soldiers use to schlep about 1,400 pounds of gear. IRobot wants to have a robotic version ready by next year, so it can show it off to the Army and try to get funding for a full line of the vehicles, which would work as mechanical pack mules. The company hopes to be in production by 2006.
By then, the armed Talon will have been in operation for about a year, if all goes according to plan. And for those of you who might be worried about the robot getting loose with a "runaway gun," Tordillos orders you to relax.
"The thing is not shooting on its own. You've got to have these," he said, waving a set of small, silvery keys, which fit into a lock on the Talon's briefcase-sized controller. A single switch causes the robot to reboot and return to safe mode.
GlobalSecurity.org's Pike isn't worried about the Talon going haywire. He's concerned about what the armed UGV represents for the future.
"This opens up great vistas, some quite pleasant, others quite nightmarish. On the one hand, this could make our flesh-and-blood soldiers so hard to get to that traditional war -- a match of relatively evenly matched peers -- could become a thing of the past," he said. "But this might also rob us of our humanity. We could be the ones that wind up looking like Terminators, in the world's eyes."
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