Is Our Robot Army Ready for Combat?


...Asks our partner, Popular Mechanics, in today's story on

The MULE (Multifunction Utility/Logistics and Equipment) is roughly the size of a Humvee, but it has a trick worthy of monster truck rallies. Each of its six wheels is mounted on an articulated leg, allowing the robot to clamber up obstacles that other cars would simply bump against.

Right now, it's slowly extricating itself from the caved-in roof, undulating slightly as it settles into a neutral stance on the asphalt. This prototype's movements are precise, menacing and slow. When the final product rolls onto the battlefield in six years, it will clear obstacles in stride, advancing without hesitation. And, like the robot cars that raced through city streets in last fall's Pentagon-funded DARPA Urban Challenge, the MULE will use sensors and GPS coordinates to pick its way through a battlefield. If a target is detected, the machine will calculate its own firing solutions and wait for a remote human operator to pull the trigger. The age of killer robots is upon us.

But here at defense contractor Lockheed Martin's test track, during a demonstration for Popular Mechanics, this futuristic forerunner of the robot army has a flat tire. "Actually, this is good," says Michael Norman, Lockheed's project manager for the prototype. "You'll be able to see how quick it is to swap in a new tire." He nods toward an engineer holding an Xbox 360 controller and wearing a gigantic, gleaming backpack that contains a processing computer.

The engineer taps a handheld touchscreen. One of the robot's wheeled legs rotates upward, and a two-man crew goes to work. Each leg has its own hub motor to allow for a variety of ­positions. If one leg is blown off by enemy fire or a roadside bomb, the rest are able to soldier on, with the robot automatically adjusting its center of gravity to stay mobile. It's highly functional. But with its engine powered down -- it runs on a Mercedes-built engine originally modified for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -- and one leg cocked gamely in the air, the MULE doesn't look so tough right now.

In fact, the MULE isn't ready for battle. Barely a year old, the prototype is a product of the Army's Unmanned Ground Vehicle program, which began in 2001. It has yet to fire a single bullet or missile, or even be fitted with a weapon. Here at the test track it's loaded down with rucksacks and boxes, two squads' worth of equipment. At the moment, the MULE has no external sensors. "We're 80 percent through the initial phase," Norman says, "but we don't have the perception fully tested. It knows heading and speed, but it's blind."

In other words, it's essentially one of the world's biggest radio-control cars. And, eyeing the robot's familiar controller, I realize I might have a shot at driving it. I know my way around a video-game console, but the engineers are noncommittal about my request to drive the MULE.

The goal, of course, is for the MULE to drive itself. Sitting a short distance away is the prototype's future, a full-size mockup of a weaponized variant, its forward-facing machine gun bracketed by missile tubes. The gleaming sphere set on a short mast looks precisely like a robot's eyeball. It will visually track moving targets, allowing operators to zoom in for a closer look before pulling the trigger. According to the Army, this giant prop represents a revolutionary shift in how we will wage wars. This is the face of the robotic infantry.

Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have already flooded the battlefield. There are at least 6000 robots in use by the Army and Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan. For years these small, remote-control vehicles have allowed troops to peek around corners and investigate suspected bombs. And while unmanned aerial vehicles have been loaded with missiles since 2001, the arming of ground robots is relatively uncharted territory.

Last June the Army deployed the first-ever armed UGVs. Three SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Remote Direct-Action System) robots landed in Iraq, each equipped with an M249 light machine gun. These UGVs are essentially guns on tracks, a variant of the remote-control Talon bots routinely blown up while investigating improvised explosive devices. When the trio was approved for combat duty, the potential for historic robot-versus-human carnage lit up the blogosphere. Never mind the dozens of air-to-ground Hellfire missiles that have already been launched by a squadron of armed Predator drones over the past seven years -- this was a robot soldier, packing the same machine gun used by ground troops.

The historic deployment ended with a whimper after the Army announced that the SWORDS would not be given the chance to see combat. According to a statement from Duane Gotvald, deputy project manager of the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office, which oversees robots used by the Army and Marines, "While there has been considerable interest in fielding the system, some technical issues still remain and SWORDS is not currently funded." The robots never fired a shot, but Gotvald pointed out that the Army's 3rd Infantry Division used them for surveillance and "peacekeeping/guard operations."

The nature of the robots' "technical issues" remains an open question. The Army has not released details, and officials with Foster-Miller, the Massachusetts-based contractor that developed the SWORDS, refused interview requests for this story. But according to Col. Barry Shoop, deputy head of West Point's electrical engineering and computer science department, the reason armed UGVs continue to lag behind UAVs is because of their mission: close-quarters firefights. "The technical challenges are greater," Shoop says. "Think of the kind of image and graphics processing you need to make positive identification, to use lethal force. That's inhibiting."

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-- Christian

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