Robots May Fight for the Army|
By Mark Baard
04.13.04 | 2:00 AM
Lightweight, super-strong robots will lead human soldiers into battle within
10 years -- at least according to iRobot.
The robots, called small unmanned ground vehicles, or SUGVs, will detect the
presence of chemical and biological weapons, identify targets for artillery and
infantrymen, and ferret out snipers hiding inside urban buildings. Today, humans
mainly perform these tasks, often becoming the first casualties of battle while
looking for snipers or explosives.
The SUGV (pronounced "sug-vee") will be a smaller and lighter version of the
PackBot, a 42-pound robot with tanklike
rubber treads designed by iRobot, a company
based in Burlington, Massachusetts.
IRobot, which was co-founded by Massachusetts
Institute of Technology roboticist Rodney Brooks, is the same company that
developed the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner.
American soldiers are already using PackBots to search inside caves in
Afghanistan, and to remove roadside bombs in Iraq. A PackBot proved its worth
last week when it uncovered a bomb in Iraq and was destroyed in the process.
"One robot was blown up," said retired Vice Adm. Joe Dyer, general manager of
iRobot's government and industrial robotics division. "That was a cause for
celebration, because the robot saved the life of a soldier."
Urban warfare is dirty business, as the Army's experience in Fallujah, Iraq,
shows. Soldiers piling into narrow doorways are particularly vulnerable to
gunfire, and snipers are hard to spot once their shots begin echoing throughout
But soldiers in the future, the Army hopes, will be able to pull SUGVs from
their backpacks and drop the robots through the windows of buildings where
enemies may be hiding.
IRobot wants to bring the weight of the SUGV down to 25 pounds (not including
its robot arm) while retaining sturdiness. The PackBot, for example, can be
dropped onto concrete from a height of about 6 feet. The company said one
PackBot survived a 30-foot drop from a cliff.
As they do with PackBots today, soldiers will operate the SUGVs remotely,
with rugged laptops and handheld computers, and through wireless or fiber-optic
links. Targeting systems, chemical and biological sensors, and other devices,
which are being developed by Raytheon,
will operate at the end of the SUGV's robotic arm.
SUGVs will be one of 18 networked components in the U.S. Army's $14.7 billion
Future Combat Systems
program, which will include manned and unmanned ground and aerial vehicles, as
well as new sensor systems. IRobot this week signed a $32 million deal with
leading contractors to develop SUGVs.
Future Combat Systems program leaders envision a future of highly mobile and
flexible "units of action," consisting of manned and unmanned combat vehicles.
The Army will be able to deploy these units "from
bases in the United States directly into the open desert," said retired Lt. Gen.
Daniel Zanini, corporate vice president at Science Applications International."It will
ensure the U.S. remains the world's dominant force for land combat."
Science Applications International, along with Boeing, is the lead systems integrator for
Future Combat Systems.
Some of the robots that are being developed may also be used to shoot at
human targets, iRobot suggested. But the company said SUGVs will provide
advanced reconnaissance first. The company does not want to be seen as putting
human soldiers out of business.
Robot vision systems have serious limitations, and the risk that a robot
might kill an innocent civilian is too great, said iRobot CEO Colin Angle.
But Angle did not rule out the eventual use of weapons on robots, and noted
that Raytheon is developing a targeting system for the SUGV.
"We're not using these robots to hand out flowers," Angle said.
Original article: Wired
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