There is no doubt about it: Robots are destined for use on the battlefield.
Researchers are trying to find the best mechatronic device to fight, investigate, cover rough terrain, survive explosions, and a myriad of other possibilities. Who is to stimulate this research? For the development of military robots and drones, the government funds many public and private companies. One of the major backers for military research and particularly military robotic research is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). A different approach to stimulating robotic development is the private Google Lunar X PRIZE aiming to stimulate private space research (I discussed this in a previous post). However, this robotic space competition does not include funding, but instead a large prize as an initiative. Which method of stimulation will be more successful? Most likely, the companies working toward the Lunar X Prize are bootstrapping and have some funding, but do not have as many resources as the government-funded companies. Judging by the development of companies and the funding for military robotic research, providing funding up-front seems to spur greater interest.
DARPA has an annual budget of about $3.3 billion (out of the Department of Defense’s approximately $550 billion budget). This number makes it apparent that Washington wants new technologies for US soldiers (maybe to replace them someday?). Doing a cursory search of government agencies, I find the Department of Energy (DoE) has an annual budget of $23.4 billion dollars. How much of this is invested in alternative energy sources? There’s about $1.3 billion allocated to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) for “promoting America’s energy security through reliable, clean, and affordable energy,” while $9.1 billion is budgeted for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to meet defense and homeland security-related objectives. I am sure (and I hope) there are many programs for alternative energy, but DARPA’s budget seems very large in comparison to the EERE’s. Replacements for humans on the battlefield must be a priority for the US government.
There are an increasing number of companies and developments in the area of military fighting and reconnaissance robots. This is certainly not a bad thing: much of our history reflects great technological advances during times of duress. Companies such as Boston Dynamics are making advances in studying human and other animals’ motion, simulation and robotics application. The flagship of their robots in development is the BigDog, proclaimed as the most advanced 4-legged robot on earth. See the robot recover after someone tries to push it over at 28 seconds in this YouTube clip, and its slip and recovery walking on ice at 1:24 in this most recent YouTube Clip. Someday I imagine this robot running twice as fast as a dog (BigDog currently travels at about 4 mph) and having Terminator-like strength and skills. I think the biggest obstacle is obvious if you watch a clip: BigDog seems to be incredibly loud.
I think RHex, another of Boston Dynamics’ robots, covers an impressive variety of terrain at an astonishing speed with amazing agility. I am impressed by the unique approach of its spinning legs to go through mud, cross water and, with flippers, even swimming like a fish.
Foster-Miller’s TALON robot comes in a variant known as the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System (SWORDS) that has a variety of weaponry options of a rifle, machine gun, grenade launcher or an incendiary weapon. It was reported that the first armed robots were deployed in Iraq, but it unknown whether they are undergoing test maneuvers or are in active combat. The robots are quick, reportedly capable of “keeping pace with a running soldier,” able to climb stairs, plow through snow, and are super-tough. To get more details, see Foster-Miler’s detailed TALON product page.
Some research programs at universities are also working on developing military robots. One (although dated) publication funded by DARPA was titled “ARMS (Autonomous Robots for Military Systems): A Survey of Collaborative Robotics Core Technologies and Their Military Applications” in 2001. Also, DARPA’s most recent Urban Challenge and previous Grand Challenges in 2004 and 2005, have spurred collegiate teams from various universities to build systems to control road vehicles autonomously. This is an effective method for college students and engineering departments to become involved in the development of autonomous systems. In general, the large defense contractors, including Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and many more, are always seeking the best and brightest engineers to join their company. DARPA helps to expose engineering students to defense-type projects, such as the DARPA Grand Challenge.
Graduating engineers going to work in the defense industry is undoubtedly important for maintaining our security and technological advantage over other countries, but I also feel that the government should have programs similar to DARPA in other fields. DARPA’s involvement in colleges and universities has funded and spurred many research projects in academia, and there should be a large investment in programs to spur research in other fields, such as alternative energy. DARPA was created in 1958 in response to the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, among other things. We should not need a scare such as Sputnik to launch a government agency to formulate and execute research and development projects.