By Robert Bruce
“The robots will take on forms that will optimize their use for the roles and missions they will perform. Some will look like vehicles, some like airplanes, some like insects or animals or other objects in an attempt to camouflage or to deceive the adversary. Some will have no physical form - software intelligent agents or cyberbots.” Doctor Russ Richards, Director of Project Alpha, US Joint Forces Command
Editor’s Note: This wraps up Robert Bruce’s three part series on military robots with a quick look at some current systems and then some crystal ball gazing. For those who are wondering why a “gun magazine” is devoting so much space to electromechanical gizmos and gadgets, we offer the observation that men with guns on the battlefield have always dreamed of ways to be more lethal and survivable. For American and allied forces directly engaged in the Global War on Terror, this dream is an immediate practical concern as a matter of life or death. Most all of the technologies in use and in the pipeline to make robots work better also make the common soldier’s weapons better. From all-weather sights to seeker projectiles, from stabilized mounts to directed energy beams, robotic research profoundly influences manportable weaponry. So, consider these articles a preview of what you’ll probably be reading about in SAR a dozen years from now. - Robert G. Segel
They have no fear, they feel no pain. They need no sleep and they don’t complain. They’re dead shots with a variety of weapons in any kind of weather day or night. And - if killed in action - nobody has to write a letter to their families or pay out life insurance benefits. They’re “weaponized robots” and more of them are on the way to the battlefield.
Unmanned war machines have been around for more than a hundred years. It is said that bomb equipped balloons were launched by both sides in the American Civil War with the object of causing destruction behind enemy lines. Land and sea mines are primitive autonomous weapons, waiting with infinite patience until bumped into.
The “Kettering Bug,” a bomb-carrying biplane with pre-set robotic controls, was flight tested by Americans late in WWI. German scientists picked up the idea and two decades later were sending robot ramjets against London in the form of V-1 “Buzz Bombs.”
In the 1950’s the US Air Force began arming jet fighters with Sparrow AIM-7 rockets, the first “fire and forget” weapons for air-to-air combat. In the Vietnam War “Firebee” AQM-34L recon drones saved countless numbers of American airmen by flying photo and electronic recon missions over Hanoi and Haiphong. It proved particularly useful at pinpointing both conventional anti-aircraft weapons and the increasingly deadly surface-to-air missiles supplied by the Soviet Union.
The Tomahawk Cruise Missile, initially fielded in 1983, is still flying extraordinary distances over hostile terrain to deliver high explosive payloads with pinpoint accuracy.
Building on the work of Israeli forces in the use of very small recon aircraft, America adopted the Pioneer UAV in time for the 1990-91 Gulf War. There, the 416 pound drone earned the distinction of being the first robot to accept the surrender of enemy combatants.
“The USS Wisconsin deliberately flew its Pioneer low over Faylaka Island. When the Iraqi defenders heard the sound of the UAV’s two-cycle engine, they knew they were targeted for more naval shelling. The Iraqis signaled surrender by waving handkerchiefs, undershirts and bed sheets.” American Forces Press Service
The United States Armed Forces enjoy significant technological superiority over current and near future adversaries. This, serving highly trained and motivated warfighters, enables Americans to dominate almost any battlespace day or night and in any weather. But too many of the tasks that must be performed involve putting humans at unnecessary risk. Of course, combat has always involved degrees of risk and resulting casualties, but there is no excuse for sending men into a meat grinder when machines will do as well or better.
Robots in their many current and emerging forms offer a lot to human counterparts in the combat zone. Just about any tactical task - from hauling supplies, to reconnaissance, to the application of lethal force - is now or will soon be done in part or in whole by machines.
A tremendous variety of robots are working right now for American land, sea and air forces. Some of these include crawlers like MATILDA and TALON (recently equipped with weapons), rollers like DRAGON RUNNER, flyers like PREDATOR, and swimmers like RMS. But, as they say, “we ain’t seen nothin’ yet....”
The Science of War
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is central to the application of existing and emerging scientific knowledge to every aspect of human conflict. Its mission is to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military and prevent technological surprise from harming our national security. This is done by sponsoring “high payoff research” that bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and their military use.
A quick glance at some recent programs launched by DARPA, just in the area of Urban Warfighting, shows how cutting-edge science is being applied to some very practical military uses. Contractors have been given six to twelve months to present “feasibility demonstrations” for 36 highly intriguing concepts, including these with distinctly robotic overtones:
- Firefight Aerial Sensor and Mapper
- Air-Dropped Vertically Traversable Unmanned Ground Vehicles
- Electroadhesive Wall-Climbing Robot for Three Dimensional Mobility in Urban Environments
“Potential applications for such robots... include surveillance, reconnaissance, pathfinding, deception, weapon delivery, transporting artifacts, and small scale actuation. Applications may include minefield detection wherein small sensors are mounted on hopping robots or robots with multi-task capabilities, intelligence gathering in city pipelines, robots in large numbers for decoy applications, or extremely small robots that might be injected and pick a door lock.” DARPA Distributed Robotics Overview
DARPA’s Distributed Robotics Program is looking for revolutionary approaches to extremely small robots, reconfigurable robots, systems of robots, biologically-inspired designs, innovative methods of robot controlling including innovative interfaces, and methods of implementing pooled capabilities and/or layered intelligence. We can get a better idea about what all that means by looking at some specific projects funded by DARPA and actually being worked on right now by various groups in industry, academia and high-speed science labs.
- Robot Sentries. “Sandia’s Intelligent Systems & Robotics Center is developing and testing a robotic perimeter detection system for Small Unit Operations. The objective is to demonstrate the viability of using a cooperative team of robotic sentry vehicles to investigate alarms from intrusion detection sensors. This cooperative team concept can significantly reduce the workload and increase the effectiveness of a single warfighter in the battlefield.”Sandia National Laboratories
- Autonomous Army Ants. SWARM (Smart Warfighter Array of Reconfigurable Modules) “DARPA Software for Distributed Robotics (SDR) program is developing robot behavior and software to enable very large groups of very small, very inexpensive robots to perform useful tasks. SDR will allow human operators to control robot ‘swarms’ without having to consider what each individual robot is doing.”DARPA Strategic Plan
- Combat Crabs. “Modeled after a crab, Aerial II ALUV (Autonomous Legged Underwater Vehicle) is designed to remove mines and obstacles on land and underwater in the surf zone. Its unique brand of legged locomotion capitalizes on a crab’s agility, stability, and efficiency and will allow Aerial to scramble over obstacles and crevices that traditional wheeled vehicles would find insurmountable.” iRobot Corporation
Future Combat Systems
The US Army is going through the agonizing process of “Transformation” from heavy forces structured for large scale conflict against conventional adversaries to those that are light, fast, flexible, and far more lethal. All types of robots are a big part of that transformation.
“Future Combat Systems (FCS) is catalyzing the Army’s transformation to the Objective Force. It will be a networked system-of-systems that includes manned and unmanned ground vehicles, along with various unmanned air vehicles. The goal is to develop Units of Action that have the lethality and survivability of an M1-based (Abrams tank) heavy force, but with the agility of today’s light forces.” DARPA Strategic Plan
In addition to a family of manned vehicles, FCS, as currently envisioned, will include four distinct types of ground robot platforms.
- NLOS-LS (Non-Line-of-Sight - Launch System) is a roving robotic mortar carrier.
- ARV (Armed Robotic Vehicle) is a hunter-killer heavy armored car with sophisticated sensors, guided missiles and a high velocity main gun.
- MULE (Multifunction Utility/Logistics and Equipment) is actually several types of vehicles built on a common chassis. Depending on equipment and configuration, it can be a supply carrier, air assault weapons platform, countermine system, and even a autonomous ambulance named “Valkyrie” after the mythical Nordic creatures that flew fallen warriors straight to Valhalla.
- SUGV (Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle) is the only one actually in service now, typified by MATILDA and TALON EOD robots that have been recently upgraded with remote teleoperated weapons platforms.
FCS also includes four classes of unmanned air vehicles ranging from small model plane style recon flyers used at the platoon and company level, through larger fixed wing and rotary wing recon, to the potential for flying an Apache-type robot helicopter with air-to-ground and air-to-air attack capabilities
With directed energy weaponry including lasers and focused microwaves developing at a high speed, it is now fashionable in future combat circles to talk about “lethality components” as opposed to the old term “guns” used by men and machines. Some other interesting new concepts include:
- Electrothermal. “An electrothermal gun uses electrical energy to heat a propellant that is allowed to expand rapidly to create a force on the ordnance. The force is capable of accelerating a projectile to high speeds thermodynamically.” Federation of American Scientists
- Magnetic. “It’s the fastest gun in the world,” says physicist Marcus Knudson, lead scientist on Sandia’s magnetic propulsion project. “At 20 kilometers per second... would send material from New York to Boston in half a minute.” Sandia National Laboratories News Release
- Metal Storm. “Our electronic ballistics system (demonstrating a 40mm multi-tube array on the TALON robot) has no mechanical parts and provides a lightweight, compact weapon which carries a payload of sixteen shots, ten more than the existing alternative. The system is capable of variable rates of fire, selected and fired by remote control. We intend to undertake further development of the Metal Storm system with a view to increasing the payload to 48 shots.” Mike O’Dwyer, Director of Scientific Innovation, Metal Storm
- Smart Munitions. These are already being widely used in the form of artillery shells and “smart bombs” like JDAM that ride beams from laser designators to impact with uncanny precision. So, why not more, smarter and smaller versions that don’t need a designator? “These smart munitions could be defensive or offensive, be vehicle-mounted on the various Future Combat Systems manned and unmanned vehicles, and/or be carried by the Objective Force Warrior or future warriors. Quick-reaction fire-and-forget miniature smart munitions would improve lethality against enemy vehicles and personnel....” US Army Space and Missile Defense Command
Death From Above
“DARPA is conducting three unmanned air combatant programs: the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) with the Air Force, UCAV-N with the Navy, and the Unmanned Combat Armed Rotorcraft with the Army. These aircraft will be teamed with manned systems on the ground and in the air....” DARPA Strategic Plan
The Navy and Air Force UCAVs are basically unmanned fighter jets with most of the same characteristics and capabilities as the ones that human pilots are flying in now. The program is progressing quickly and early versions are taking off without human aid, navigating on their own, doing high-value recon, and releasing “smart” ordnance in flight.
As for the Unmanned Combat Armed Rotorcraft, this will be “an all-weather, highly autonomous and survivable unmanned rotorcraft fully integrated into the Army’s Objective Force combat maneuver force structure. Capable of autonomous mission planning while in flight, the UCAR will request guidance from a human operator only for tasking and final weapons authorization.” Boeing News Release
DARPA recognizes that, as hard as it is oftentimes for people to work together, a lot of sober thought and hard work needs to go into optimizing man-machine teams of the near future. Studies are underway to analyze how humans act, think and communicate and how robots might be equipped to handle our very different levels of physical and mental competence.
Increasingly smart robots will be working with humans whose baseline intelligence has not measurably improved in the last thousand years. Undaunted, DARPA is pressing forward with some spooky initiatives that just may have a payoff in helping scared, exhausted and information-overloaded soldiers work smarter and hit harder on future battlefields.
- Brain Boosters. “Our Augmented Cognition program looks to directly (but non-invasively) measure human cognitive load so that information may be presented to the warfighter or commander in a way that does not overload human cognition when mental processes are pressed to the limit, and that takes advantage of spare ‘processing power.’ This will make those working under high-pressure circumstances much more effective, and will fundamentally change the nature of the human-machine interface, finally creating interfaces that adapt to the user rather than the other way around.”DARPA Strategic Plan
- Brain Machine Interface. Kicking augmented cognition up several notches, we find DARPA eagerly pursuing the eerie goal of making something happen just by thinking about it. “This program is finding ways to detect and directly decode signals in the brain so that thoughts can be turned into acts performed by a machine. The long-term Defense implications... are enormous; imagine U.S. warfighters that only need use the power of their thoughts to do things at great distance.” DARPA Strategic Plan
Command and control aren’t the only areas of human-robot interaction that DARPA is interested in. Improving the soldier’s comfort, stamina, load-lifting, distance-marching, lethality, communications, and survivability are urgent goals so that men can keep pace with their machines.
- Bionic Man. “The overall goal of the Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation (EHPA) Program is to develop devices and machines that will increase the speed, strength, and endurance of soldiers in combat environments. Projects will lead to self-powered, controlled and wearable exoskeletal devices and/or machines and demonstrations of their utility in military applications. Inclusion of exoskeleton technology into land-based operations could potentially increase the capabilities of the ground-based warfighter and radically alter the current military doctrine.”DARPA Defense Sciences Office
- Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN). A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, a length scale where the rules of classical physics don’t readily apply. ISN researchers aim to “...create a 21st century battlesuit that combines high-tech capabilities with light weight and comfort. Imagine a bulletproof jumpsuit, no thicker than ordinary spandex, that monitors health, eases injuries, communicates automatically, and maybe even lends superhuman abilities.” ISN
So, if all goes as planned over the next ten to twenty years the battlefields will swarm with armed robots of all types working for and with super soldiers. With luck this unstoppable team will be on the side of the good guys.
The internet has everything you need to know about Robotic Warriors of all types. Some good places to start are:
- Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International: www.auvsi.org
- Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: www.darpa.mil
- Department of Defense Joint Robotics Program: www.jointrobotics.com
- Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies: http://web.mit.edu/isn/
- MACHINEBRAIN.COM: www.machinebrain.com
- Sandia FIRE ANT in action: www.sandia.gov/isrc/fireant.html
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