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Military Expanding Role of Robots on the Battlefield

April 23, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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The military has increasingly utilized robot technology in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, where the machines search for IEDs and conduct aerial surveillance. Tom Bearden reports on robots on the battlefield.

TOM BEARDEN: Battlefield robots are nothing new in Hollywood. The cinematic concept of combat robots has been around since the turn of the last century. The latest vision is coming to a theater near you this summer.

But they aren’t just science fiction anymore. The military has deployed thousands of them for use in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The most well known are remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles, like the Predator. Less noticed are ground robots, but they’re a growing part of the war effort. The military has bought more than 6,000 of them since 2003 at an average cost of $100,000 to $200,000 each.

One of these is the TALON, which is designed to deal with improvised explosive devices.

National Guardsman Captain Patrick Callahan and former Marine Steve Roberson, who work for the manufacturer, showed us how they operate. They say these types of robots have saved lives.

STEVE ROBERSON, technician, QinetiQ, North America: In a seven-month tour, I lost five TALON robots in the field out in western Iraq.

TOM BEARDEN: Would you have lost five soldiers?

STEVE ROBERSON: It’s a possibility that we would have.

TOM BEARDEN: Bob Quinn is vice president of QinetiQ, which builds TALONs in Bedford, Massachusetts.

BOB QUINN, vice president, QinetiQ, North America: We make robots that soldiers would like to extend their arms, eyes, ears, legs, and save U.S. soldiers. And I think, in the context of many wars, being able to save our soldiers is hugely important.

TOM BEARDEN: Not far away in Waltham, a company called iRobot, best known for robot vacuum cleaners, is building its own reconnaissance and surveillance robots.

Instead of using bulky tabletop consoles, soldiers wear backpacks and video goggles that receive images from onboard TV cameras. The robots are operated via handheld controllers similar to those used in video games.

ADM. JOE DYER (Ret.), president for Government and Industrial Robots, iRobot: This particular robot’s a very famous one. We call it Scooby Doo. It did 17 IED missions in Iraq before the bad guys finally got it.

TOM BEARDEN: President for government and industrial robots, retired Admiral Joe Dyer; iRobot’s goal is to put simple, inexpensive robots in the hands of the ordinary soldier.

ADM. JOE DYER: This is a robot that can go in first and establish what the military calls situational awareness. That means, “I know what I’m going to be facing, and I know what to do when I get there.”

The robot, if you want to think about it, is almost like a scout of old, goes first, and tells you what you need to deal with, paves the way for you.

This robot can climb stairs. Its built as our lightest robot, 30 pounds, so that it’s really manpackable. This is a robot for the infantry, for the soldier. And they’re finding hundreds of things to do with it that we’d never thought of.

Demand for armed robots

TOM BEARDEN: But there's another kind of robot military leaders have been hesitant to deploy: robots with guns. This device, built by QinetiQ, is called MAARS, or Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System. It carries a light machine gun and is designed to patrol a perimeter or face down an enemy.

The company set up a demonstration where the soldier-operator sees an insurgent burying an explosive device and sends MAARS forward to confront him.

Is it urgently needed in the field now?

CAPT. PATRICK CALLAHAN, National Guard/QinetiQ, North America: It is, indeed. Any time you can have a robot or something that brings more firepower to the fight for you is a great asset. And, again, not having to put a soldier in harm's way, but still be able to accomplish the mission, is a great thing.

TOM BEARDEN: Program director Charles Dean say enlisted men who've used robots in the R&D phase feel the same way.

CHARLES DEAN, MAARS program director, QinetiQ, North America: If you can imagine a machine-gunner's arms are now over a kilometer long, his eyeballs are now over a kilometer long, his ears are now over a kilometer long. When you think about having one of our sons or ourselves going down these streets as the first point-man in an organization, you can quickly see the utility of sending an armed robot first.

TOM BEARDEN: MAARS hasn't been deployed, but an earlier model, called SWORDS, has been tested in Iraq. Those tests didn't impress Ellen Purdy, enterprise director for Joint Ground Robotics at the Defense Department.

ELLEN PURDY, Department of Defense: They've seen very, very limited utility. And in fact, the last word that I received, they have, in fact, not shot anything at all. They haven't been fired.

TOM BEARDEN: Pierre Sprey has decades of experience in weapon system development, both inside the Pentagon and in private industry. He says this type of system needs a lot more work.

PIERRE SPREY, former military weapons systems specialist: If they're being trained to take these to combat, they're not only wasting their time, but they're going to endanger themselves and possibly their friends.

You know, these things really need to be wrung out in the open, and open and transparent, and observed operational tests, as we do for other weapons, as we would for rifles, as we would for fighters, as we would for tanks. And that needs to be done in the United States; it's a very bad thing to do that in combat.

Criticism builds

TOM BEARDEN: But QinetiQ Vice President Bob Quinn thinks the military is sometimes far too cautious.

BOB QUINN: History is replete with examples of technological overmap situations, where soldiers perhaps love having this capability, but the chain of command just isn't aware of the capability or willing to make the changes.

George Custer was offered three Gatling guns to bring with him, and he said, no, that would slow him down.

ELLEN PURDY: It's just not something that we're -- we're very quickly pursuing, because we don't know that, in terms of kind of a cost-benefit ratio, if I put the investment into armed robot, is there a really huge benefit to the servicemembers? That's just not clear.

We know that we'll get a lot of benefit by using robots in other tasks, and that's where we've tended to put our attention, our research dollars, and our procurement dollars.

TOM BEARDEN: Sprey says there are also technological problems with these types of devices.

PIERRE SPREY: The soldier is able to cover most of the horizon very quickly, within fractions of a second, sweeping visually to check any kind of threat that he might have.

And you're doing the same thing sitting in front of a laptop, you know, with a sensor that's as relatively poor, relative to the human eye, as a video camera, you know, first of all, you're going to miss most of the really important cues. And the ones you pick up, it's going to take you a lot longer to react, because they're going to be more indefinite.

Autonomous armed robots

TOM BEARDEN: Far more controversial is the idea of an autonomous armed robot, an actual "Terminator" that can decide by itself when to use deadly force.

STUDENT: That is so freaking cool.

TOM BEARDEN: David Barrett thinks that day is coming, and soon. Barrett is a professor at Olin College, an engineering school in Massachusetts. He and his students have designed and built many different kinds of robots, some that swim like fish and others that look like farm tractors that spray pesticides.

DAVID BARRETT, Olin College of Engineering: There are many countries working on autonomous robots, and there are many countries working on lethal robots. And it's only a matter of time before they end up in operational theaters.

TOM BEARDEN: How much time?

DAVID BARRETT: Probably five years for the first ones.

TOM BEARDEN: That close?

DAVID BARRETT: Yes, this will happen well within our lifetimes, and it will probably be commonplace in our children's lifetimes.

TOM BEARDEN: The use of autonomous robots raises many concerns. Can they be controlled effectively? Can they be trusted to distinguish friend from foe? And can they react fast enough to a dangerous situation.

Sprey has an even more basic concern.

PIERRE SPREY: The whole thing about talking about autonomous robots at this point is just science fiction glitz. There's simply no point in talking about them and speculating about them. We should see if you can actually get some robot to do some simple tasks autonomously. Right now, they cannot do any simple combat tasks autonomously.

Ethical considerations

TOM BEARDEN: Even as the debate continues, the military is writing operational manuals for using remote-controlled robots.

At the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, leaders are taking classes on how best to use the equipment. And the college now stages an annual robotics exhibit to show off the newest technology to soldiers and area civilians.

BILL WADDELL, Center for Strategic Leadership: Things going OK?

TOM BEARDEN: Bill Waddell is the director of the Command and Control Group.

BILL WADDELL: We have found that educating senior leaders requires a little bit of hands-on opportunity, because they're going to have to be the ones that make the decisions about the integration on the battlefield, how their soldiers integrate with these systems.

TOM BEARDEN: Waddell says there are ethical implications to consider, as well.

BILL WADDELL: Like, does that make it easier to go to war? Does make an administration's decision of deploying troops easier or harder?

Well, we haven't actually had to arm wrestle with those situations, but we will have to, because, if suddenly you make war easier and less of a burden on a people, it becomes more of a video game than it does simply going to war. And the atrocities of war and all of the ugliness of warfare goes away and becomes a video game.

TOM BEARDEN: While the military continues to research armed robots, Pentagon officials agree remote-controlled devices will inevitably take over more and more jobs, like IED clearance.

Whether robots will eventually engage in actual combat on their own is a matter of technology, budgets, and hard ethical questions that have yet to be answered.