Machine gun-toting robots may soon back up U.S. soldiers

Robotics blast targets with M240 machines during live-fire demo at Fort Benning

A robot, equipped with an M240 machine gun, moves through the darkness until it stops under a stand of trees 100 yards from its squad of U.S. troops. The robot uses thermal imaging to detect enemy combatants hiding up ahead and aims its gun at them.

With a single command from its human controller, who is with the squad 100 yards back, the robot opens fire and takes out the enemy, saving the troops from a potentially deadly attack.

A weaponized robot acting as a member of a squad of U.S. soldiers fighting on the battlefield is no longer science fiction. They may not be two-legged, humanoid robots yet, but with wheels or tracks they are able to follow troops through a wide range of terrain and back them up in battle.

Both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marines have tested prototypes of weaponized robots on the battlefield. However, armed robots are not currently in the Army's inventory of weapons.

Army leaders got a look at what technology is available for the battlefield during a robotic live-fire demonstration at Fort Benning, Ga., this week.

"We were hoping to see how they remotely control lethal weapons," said Lt. Col. Willie Smith, chief of Unmanned Ground Vehicles at Fort Benning. "We were pleased with what we saw here. The technology is getting to be where it needs to be. It's a start."

Smith, who was looking to see multiple weapons systems mounted on the robots, said he's uncertain how soon the Army will begin using weaponized robots on the battlefield, but he's hoping it will happen within five years.

"They're not just tools, but members of the squad. That's the goal," Smith said. "A robot becoming a member of the squad, we see that as a matter of training ... I think there's more work to be done, but I'm expecting we'll get there."

Four robotics companies -- Northrop Grumman, HDT Robotics, iRobot Corp. and QinetiQ -- demonstrated their robots' abilities to fire machine guns and take out pop-up targets from a distance of 150 meters during the live-fire demonstration Thursday.

Commercial companies showed off their weaponized robots to U.S. Army officers at Fort Benning, Ga., this week. Military leaders were looking to see what the technology is capable of and how it could be used on the battlefield. (Video: Keith Shaw/IDG Enterprise)

Phil Coker, director of integrated platform systems at Northrop Grumman, said its robot, the CaMEL (for Carry-all Mechanized Equipment Landrover), can run for 24 hours on three-and-a-half gallons of fuel, and can be equipped with a grenade launcher, an automatic weapon and anti-tank missiles.

The CaMEL also can identify targets from three-and-a-half kilometers away, using a daylight telescope or thermal imaging. The robot also can be dropped into a war zone from a helicopter or a plane.

The robots can be controlled, tetherless, from a handheld device that looks much like a gaming control, a laptop computer or a tablet attached to a vest that a soldier wears.

The vest, which weighs about 10 pounds, carries a battery, the handheld controller and a tablet that flips down from the soldier's chest so he can see what the robot sees. That means the soldier doesn't have to see the live target himself.

The robots also can be operated, via satellite radio communications, from hundreds of miles away.

As for security, executives from the robotics companies said there is concern about protecting the robots from being stolen or hacked. Several companies said that to ensure a hacker can't break into the robot's computer system and turn the its weapons on U.S. troops, the military relies heavily on encrypted radio systems.

The idea is for the robots to move along with the troops, by either being air dropped or traveling with the soldiers as they patrol on foot.

The weaponized robots could offer the soldiers heavy fire power backup, which would be particularly important when larger guns or tanks aren't available.

A robot could move out into an open area, using its sensors to detect enemy combatants, while human soldiers stay safely behind. A robot also could move into position a greater distance from its squad, so the enemy will be focused on defending itself from the robot while U.S. troops move in on them.

"It's actually a good thing," said Staff Sgt. Douglas Briggs, Maneuver Battle Lab NCO, stationed at Fort Benning. "It keeps soldiers out of harm's way."

Briggs, who has worked with robotic-armed machines equipped with machine guns in Iraq, said a big part of bringing robots to support active duty soldiers is trust. The soldiers need to trust that their robot will not only work when needed, but will not harm them.

"It comes back to old ways and incorporating new stuff," Briggs said. "We need to see if it's going to do what they say it will do. It's like when we started using GPS instead of a compass. I trusted my compass. I had to get used to GPS."

While robots may eventually become trusted members of a squad, the military is far from willing to give a robot the autonomy to fire on its own.

Tollie Strode Jr., a senior project officer with the Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Benning, said, at this time, there always will be a human in the loop when a decision is made to have a robot fire a lethal weapon.

"The robot may acquire an enemy target, but it will still always ask a human for permission to fire," Strode said. "I think the ability for a robot to acquire and assess a target and ID it as a threat and fire is probably five or 10 years out. However, even if that capability exists... we'll have a human in the process of deciding what to do."

This article, Machine gun-toting robots may soon back up U.S. soldiers, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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