By Robert Bruce
“Soldiers may have armed robots as battle buddies by early next year, according to industry and military officials attending the biennial Army Science Conference.” Army News Service, 6 Dec 04
CENTCOM AREA OF OPERATIONS, December 2005.
Utterly exhausted from several days of intense combat operations in Iraq, all but one of the men inside the wheeled Stryker command vehicle were getting some long overdue sleep during a halt in the latest night battle. While no one was posted outside for perimeter security in the freezing cold there was little reason for fear.
Safely and somewhat comfortably seated in the warm belly of the armored beast amid his snoring comrades, a lone sentinel was intently peering into a laptop computer screen, tracking the progress of a pair of terrorist insurgents.
Several hundred meters away and crouching low in the moonless darkness, they stealthily moved across broken terrain toward the hated Americans. Their robed bodies and the loaded RPG launchers they carried were vividly evident in shades of green and black relayed from the electronic image intensifier somewhere outside the Stryker. But then the pair slipped into a dry creek bed, out of view from the starlight scope.
Breathing a bit faster, the soldier inside slowly moved a joystick controller and the image on his screen began to move forward, gliding over the rocky desert floor until it had reached the edge of the wide and long ditch. Tiny pushes on another joystick panned and tilted the image, finally revealing the duo as they rested briefly.
Illuminated in the screen’s soft glow, the sentinel’s eyes narrowed. A few small, deft movements zoomed the image in tight. With the tap of a button a crosshair reticle appeared, along with azimuth, elevation and range to target - shown to be a formidable distance of nearly 200 meters. Carefully centering the crosshair on the two enemies and then flipping up a red safety cover, the soldier held his breath and pressed the FIRE button.
The computer screen lit up to its brightest, momentarily overwhelmed by the intense light of muzzle flashes. The distinctive cadence and sound of a 7.62mm M240 machine gun in full roar, though muffled by distance and the buttoned-up armored fighting vehicle, caused the sleeping men to awake. But before they could grab their weapons and rush to meet the threat, their buddy at the screen barked words of instant reassurance. “It’s OK; we got ‘em!”
The Stryker crewmen crowded around the screen to watch as their guardian maneuvered the video image to confirm the “martyrdom” of two more enemies of freedom. “That’s one mean little robot,” the men agreed in genuine appreciation for the capabilities of the armed TALON outside that - with its human partner - had found, stalked and killed the insurgents.
Fangs for Talon
Although inspired by reports of field tests of the armed TALON by a STRYKER unit deployed to the Middle East, at the time of this writing the scenario described above is pure speculation. But there is little reason to doubt that this story - and countless variations - will prove real in 2005 as armed ground robots join their armed airborne brothers in the worldwide war on terror.
Long a dream of science fiction writers, the automated infantryman is now a reality. Several squads of TALONs are being prepared now to move way beyond the current role being played by hundreds of recon and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) robots already at war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
US Army Staff Sergeant Santiago Tordillos, an EOD specialist at US Army TARDEC, was front and center with an armed TALON at the prestigious Army Science Conference in December 2004, showing attendees and press how the “warbot” communicates, moves and shoots. Now carrying the catchy moniker SWORDS for Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, the wheelbarrow sized machine has sparked a lot of interest in the world’s press and was recently named by TIME magazine as one of the year’s “most amazing inventions.”
Responding to commands relayed by radio from a briefcase type computer console, the little tracked vehicle moved nimbly around the exhibition hall, sending back clear video from several cameras giving Tordillos a 360 degree situational awareness. One in particular, peering through a telescopic sight mounted atop an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, would be used to aim and fire the 5.56mm belt fed machine gun. This was definitely a robot to respect.
TALON’s battery powered electric motor and servos make it uncannily quiet as it crawls on wide rubber tracks while panning, tilting and zooming its cameras. Precise aiming of the on-board machine gun is a cinch from its motorized weapon mount.
Choose Your Weapons
The Foster-Miller company’s TALON was originally fielded by the Army several years ago in EOD configuration with a versatile manipulator arm that allowed it to coolly perform all sorts of dangerous tasks involving poking, turning, lifting, neutralizing, or relocating things that blow up. Back then, its offensive capabilities consisted mainly of delivering wired blocks of C4 explosive to just about anywhere, saving untold numbers of GI sappers from all sorts of terrible endings in caves, tunnels, buildings, and roadsides. Good, but not good enough when it was well known that lots of other robots working in EOD and SWAT were “weaponized” - fitted with repeating shotguns and the like. Taking the initiative, some sergeants assigned to the Army’s EOD robot program at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, began unofficially experimenting with various ways to arm the standard issue TALONs that were widely deployed in the War on Terror.
The results were so promising, and the clamor from the combat zones so intense, that the Army’s normally snail-like bureaucracy started moving with what is described as speed and practicality, funding and coordinating an effective team of government, military and industry specialists.
While the basic machine itself tips the scales at only 85 pounds (39 kg), it is capable of carrying more than three times that weight. Thus, available options among the current and emerging infantry weaponry include just about anything that won’t roll it over from recoil.
Over the last couple of years of Army testing and evaluation, the SWORDS version has been equipped with a variety of weapons including the M16 rifle, M249 and M240 machine guns, and the .50 caliber Barrett M82A1 (Army M107) rifle.
Their success in quickly and effectively hitting targets at both close and long range is a function of Precision Remotes’ Telepresent Rapid Aiming Platform, TRAP T-250 for short. TRAP was originally made for remote controlled sharpshooting from a tripod but is now handily adapted to the new roving robot hunter-killer. Custom hardware and software to make it all work together is provided by Duke Pro.
Other weapon options include multiple barrel M203 40mm grenade launchers and the revolutionary new METAL STORM system. Several different rocket launchers have also proven effective on the robots, including the four shot 66mm M202 and even bigger shoulder-launched anti-armor weapons such as the AT4. All these give SWORDS excellent tactical versatility in missions such as perimeter security, forward recon and sniping, bunker busting, and even tank killing.
All sorts of electro-optical devices such as image intensifiers and thermal imagers can be mounted on the machine’s articulated masts and weaponry, giving SWORDS 24 hour operational and target engagement capability in any weather. Similarly, various sensors to detect nuclear, chemical and biological contamination have been added to its growing list of optional payloads.
It should be noted that it can even drive around underwater with no preparation. The story is told about one unit that somehow dropped off a speeding Hummvee and disappeared into a deep river. Its GI operators simply popped open the remote control unit and drove it around until it dutifully emerged, dripping and muddy but otherwise fine. For more information, visit: www.foster-miller.com and www.precisionremotes.com.
On top of more than 100 EOD TALONS already deployed, the Army is readying eighteen of the newly weaponized SWORDS. It is expected that the first into combat will be with STRYKER units where they will ride piggyback on the wheeled war machines, performing rear security while in place or lowered to the ground to perform all sorts of interesting duties while roving about.
METAL STORM and SWORDS
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Loyal SAR readers may recall Robert Bruce’s extensive report on the revolutionary METAL STORM ballistic system featured in Volume 5, Number 9, June 2002 issue of Small Arms Review. This is his promised update on this exciting concept with tremendous potential in many defense related applications. - Robert Segel)
Australian inventive genius Mike O’Dwyer’s brainchild has rapidly moved from his home garage to the laboratories and ranges of some of the biggest players in the free world’s defense establishment. His patented system consists of stacked caseless rounds in multiple barrels, fired electronically by computer signal in infinitely variable sequences and at astounding rates.
Over the last two years METAL STORM weapons have gained increasing sophistication and capability, leading now to dramatic firings from unmanned ground and air vehicles. In May 2004, a series of stacked 40mm pyrotechnic and inert rounds were fired from both a TALON/SWORDS robot and a DRAGONFLY DP-4X rotorcraft.
Vastly lighter and simpler than conventional multi-shot 40mm launchers, further developments by METAL STORM are being funded by millions of dollars from the American and Australian governments. Most recently, the US Navy has awarded them contracts for the “Thunder and Lightning Shield” for protection of naval vessels from sea skimming missiles and suicide boats.
Additionally, Metal Storm and defense giant Northrop Grumman will be jointly developing an anti-RPG (rocket propelled grenade) system to detect and defeat incoming warheads. Both are formidable tasks but apparently feasible in the near future.
The Metal Storm corporate website has some remarkable video clips showing its system in live fire from various platforms and may be seen at www.metalstorm.com/04_video_live_firings.html
TALON Tech Specs
- Size: 34 inches (86.4 cm) long, 22.5 inches (57.2 cm) wide, 11 inches (27.9 cm) tall
- Empty weight: 85 lbs (39 kg)
- Payload: 300 lbs (136 kg)
- Speed: Continuously variable from creep to 4 mph (6.4 kmh)
- Propulsion: Electric motor, battery duration 1 to 4 hours (mission dependent)
- Mobility: Wide tracks for cross country movement on adverse terrain, climbs stairs, amphibious
- Control: Two way radio link with master or wearable OCU
- Controller range: One mile line-of-sight
- Manufacturer: Foster-Miller Inc., Waltham, Massachusetts USA
- Website: www.foster-miller.com
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