To many people, "military robots" mean unmanned aerial or ground vehicles. Many military robots fit these categories, but some go way beyond this definition.
For example, we've reported before on Boston Dynamics robots that mimic human, animal, and insect movements. The Georgia Institute of Technology's Scalybots mimic a snake's movements. Designers of these tactical robots are trying to come up with small machines with rugged design, multiple data collection and communication methods, long battery life, the ability to negotiate rough terrain, and, in some cases, lifting and grasping capabilities. The goal is to go where humans can't without risking their lives.
Click on the image below to start a slideshow highlighting 14 robotic soldiers.
The Machine Lab's MMP-30 Mechanical Mobile Platform is used for explosive ordnance disposal in Iraq. It weighs 50 pounds (including control unit), measures about 23 inches long when collapsed, and can be carried in a backpack. Its pan/tilt color infrared camera has 180-degree pan and 150-degree tilt. The robot also sports a color, wide-angle gripper camera and a color, wide-angle rear-facing camera. The four-axis arm has a 20-inch reach and can lift five pounds at full extension. (Source: The Machine Lab)
I'm all for the idea of sending robots--not humans--to bear to brunt of war whenever and wherever possible. I have to say, though, in looking through this slide show (which was pretty amazing, BTW) I couldn't help but think I'm looking at bunch of toys for grown ups. We're talking lifesize Transformers and Iron Man and those crazy killing machines from James Cameron's movie Avatar. I don't know what that says about the psychological connections between the toys we give our children and propensity for going to war. I'm not for either. But I suppose the practicalities of geopolitics means that developments on the military robot front can translate into lives saved and that's a good thing.
Beth, those were some interesting observations. What this reminds me of is Robot Wars. I think the show origniated in the UK. It has since moved to the US and probably other countries. These robots look a lot like those robots, which we made by hobyists.
As for the kids, they seem to always pick up on war toys. I know people who would not let their kids have violent toys (no guns, tanks, etc.). Whenever they had the chance, they would make a gun out of a stick, or some such thing. It just seems to be how they are built.
I loved that show. I think I saw the U.S version of it though. I like to see all of the robot competitions and clubs and such that are encouraging our engineers of the future. I encourage anyone reading this to consider getting involved and volunteer your time to help youngsters to get excited about robotics.
Beth, that's an interesting point about design, and I'd expand it to say that designing robots for real apps has been highly influenced by both science fiction (novels and movies) and video games, both of which have also produced kids war toys. Especially video games. Soldiers have been trained for combat using video games. I then wonder what happens when people trained to do video game killing do actual killing...but that's another topic. Meanwhile, these robots do save human lives.
Ann, your comment about soliders using video games to train for war is spot on, but so is your comment about people who kill doing the same. I read just last week that the guy responsible for that horrible massacre in Norway sharpened his aim by playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare for hours on end. Now the scary thing is my 14-year old plays that game (I caved under pressure after months of holding off) as do all of his friends.
Probably all the software games that teens play have potential for being abused, Beth. Microsoft Flight Simulator seemed like a harmless way to teach kids and adults how to take off and land a small plane, but terrorists found another use for it.
Beth, always appreciate your insights. I think the future of war is pretty clear at least from the US persepctive. It's all a big video game. As the old quote goes, "He who dies with the most toys - wins!"
I often wondered that if we ever had a true robotic war (only robot against robot) and one side "wins", destroyed the other side's robots, would the loser surrender? Or would the loser continue to fight with the old life-costing methods.
I doubt such a conflict would be strictly robot-versus-robot. Firstly because most recent wars have pitted a technically advanced country against a much less advanced enemy. Second, either side's robots would target the enemy's people and cities rather than robots, except when the enemy robot blocked its mission.
Compare this with aerial warfare, say in WWII. The air forces were out to bomb the opponent's cities and factories. They engaged enemy aircraft mainly when they were sent up as interceptors.
ChasChas, I think that's a good point. The search and rescue and surveillance/reconnaissance robots shown here definitely save lives. If robots ever become weaponized against people, instead of against bombs, that will be another story. Many nations' militaries are investing in R&D for exactly that scenario.
And if you liked the Predator A with two Hellfire missles you'll love the Reaper (Predator B) that carries 14 plus bombs. I was reading at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Atomics_MQ-1_Predator about on Sptember 11, 2001 a Predator was shotdown over Iraq by a SAM during the "no fly zone" period. Under the "IRAQ" heading, a dogfight is described between a MIG25 and a Predator that was armed with a Stinger air-to-air missle. It says the Stinger was distracted by the MIGs missle. These machines have already taken human lives thus they are no longer in the realm of Sci-Fi. Looks like a new arms race to me. My bet is Moores Law will apply here too. I think we are in very deep dodo as far as the human race.
I think this discussion is bringing up a good point: that no matter what original purpose a technology is developed for, it can be applied to some other use. Many of the same basic robot functions and design platforms used in medical and rescue robots are also used in military robots. robatnorcross is right--the original Predator drone started out as a surveillance tool and ended up dropping missiles. And so is Island_Al--many other military organizations are developing weaponized robots.
I agree that even the most benign invention can be perverted, but some are much more amenable than others. In my first job out of college, we worked on instruments for an experimental airplane called the TFX. I expressed some ethical concerns that this was a military project. The boss reassured me, "This is a purely defensive interceptor.. Can you object to stopping an enemy bomber that wants blow up your mother?" The TFX, of course, became the F-111 which the Air Force then used to slaughter the people of Viet Nam. Since then I have refused to work on any military projects no matter how lucrative the pay or benign their disguises.
I do not deny the right or even the obligation of a country to defend itself but US armaments have gone far beyond any plausible defensive function, and we are also selling and giving them to some highly dubious customers.
j-allen, thanks for sharing your real-world experience. That sounds like what I remember hearing from some friends who were in aerospace engineering back then, and since: technology initially defined/designed as defensive becomes offensive. That seems to be a very old story.
Of all those robots shown only the talon swat has been weaponized. I think with shotgun. Didn't think big dog was off the leash yet :-) last time I saw it they were still trying to sort out the pgo effect when starting to move. They were talking about a version that would home in on the future solider gear and retrieve wounded. None of these are really autonomous and nothing has the versatility as a human in combat. And boots on the ground are how you occupy territory. Not sure robots turning other robots into scrap will accomplish much as there is nothing risked.
Robots turning robots into scrap is A WHOLE LOT BETTER than anything turning ME into garbage! Any day and every time! As for "weaponized " robots, I have seen a small robotic thing with a pair of minicannons mounted and it could carry "quite a few" rounds. That was a while back, and I am not at liberty to provide details, except that it was a US project. That was a serious robot that I would never want to meet up with.
Hmmm, that's a good point King DWS: if we're making and deploying weaponized robots and so is the other side, what's the point of robots duking it out with each other? For that matter, I wonder if the weaponized bots are being designed to take out humans or other bots, or both?
Rob, I also noticed that none of these are specifically weaponized. That's probably because for many of them the main function is search-and-rescue, reconnaissance/surveillance, or bomb disposal. However, descriptions of several of these robots mention "payloads" and user-customization options that imply the ability to attach weapons.
Rob, "payload" very often means weapons or bombs of some kind in a military context. Customization options for some of these include hazmat, bomb disposal and other tactical options. That said, many of them can also be used for search-and-rescule operations. Stay tuned--I'm working on a search and rescue robot slideshow that will include firefighting and other robots, some like the ones Elizabeth just wrote about here:
I look forward to the search and rescue slide show. From this slide show, it looks like the future is here. Are these developments recent? These robots seemed advanced way beyond the experimental stages. Is the military driving these developments? Or is it vendors that have a sufficient market to invest in this complexity?
Rob, the military, especially DARPA, has been a big driver of these robots, and they certainly have the funding. The basic platform of search and rescue and surveillance/reconnaissance robots, as are most of those shown here, can be then easily customized for other first responder uses, such as police and firefighters, who have no budgets. And no, these are not recent. Early drones appeared in the 1990s. Boston Dynamics, one of the main pioneers, started in 1992. Depending on how you define them, the development of military robots can be seen as starting as far back as WWII.
Sounds like this has been a behind-the-scenes industry for some time. That explains why the robots look so complex and highly developed. It will be interesting to see how soon these robots get deployed for civilian use.
I think often war or the desire to be viewed as the biggest and baddest without having to actually use the weapons has lead to several improvements to technology that eventually find their way into the private sector. And then some entreprenuer takes it to the next level and commercializes it.
I think this is a great way, although, not really given much credit, where the government develops a technology for the benefit of self defense and it results in advancements in technology. That in turn make our lives better.
Yes, that makes sense, Jmiller. The difference here is the likely expense of these robots may never be affordable to civilian or small government (municipal) entities. So, as Ann suggested, these may have to be subsidized by the federal government if they are used for civilian search and rescue.
Just wondering.... I noticed that some of these are clearly experimental while others say that they are in use in Iraq or other tactical locations. Are those in use actual "production run" type robots or are they more of an experimental variety in which the manufacturer gave a couple to the goverment as a means of getting feedback from a real-life application?
Jack, the ones already in use by the US military are definitely production runs, in the sense of final tested products, although that said, production runs of these things are in the hundreds. The largest order quantity I saw mentioned was for 1,000. The US military is investing heavily in R&D of robots for various uses.
David, glad you liked the slideshow. But I'm afraid you're wrong about the iRobot identification--unless iRobot has misidentified them on its own website, which I doubt. The photos are identified with the correct model numbers and related spec sheet and application info. It takes a bit of digging to find these photos--they're in the press center.
David, thanks for clarifying your comment. Yes, iRobot makes a lot more than we could show, including that little 110 you linked to. The Surveyor you linked to is a different robot from the iRobot 510--thanks for that info. I'm especially interested in it since it's open source. Also, I noticed when putting this slideshow together that some of these models from different manufacturers built for the same purposes look a lot alike and share many very similar features and specs.
I should have been more specific also on which iRobot image I was referring to. I was referring to the last image (#14). That is the one that looks like the Surveyor. The 110 FirstLook was the closest I found on the iRobot site looking for a similar robot. It is a pretty cool little guy. I like the Recon Scout Throwbot shown because it a different style (though the tail did make it a little less cool, though easier to try to replicate at home).
I have design many different circuits for military applications and especially enjoy the ones that help keep solider safe like these robots. It is always interesting to see the different styles, uses and abilities of robots. The mental picture I now get when I hear the word robot looks nothing like it did when I was a child.
Are these robots under direct radio control, or are they at least partly autonomous?
Armed autonomous robots present serious ethical and political problems, especially if they make "mistakes" and harm non-enemies or destroy civilian property. Who is responsible for such war crimes? Or do we just write them off as "Well, it's only a robot"?
We like think in terms of our robots taking the brunt of casualties in warfare, but how about when the enemy has robots also? Our robots might save our lives, but their robots will cost us lives. We can't have it both ways. Still there is no stopping the production of robot killers.If we fail to produce them, someone else surly will. And they will no doubt use them against us at some time. Further robot killers, otherwise known as Terminators, must be and will be autonomous. My thinking is that we would not be able to depend on human reaction time as we are very slow compared to our machines.
In my opinion, based on some 40 years of software/hardware work, we will likely never be able to make self aware machines. While we can use fuzzy logic in these machines to make decisions, they will likely never have an appreciation for a sunset, a rose, or the beauty of the human form.Asimov got it wrong with his laws for robotics.These machines can however locate the human form and destroy it.Pretty sad.
The recent spoofing and landing intact of the CIA drone by Iran should be a wakeup call. I would bet dollars to donuts that the FPGA chips used in it were not protected. If they were smart enough to convince the drone to safely land in Iran, they are probably smart enough to figure out the internal electronics. And what if they send a copied drone, or squadron of them back to Iraq loaded with Hellfire missile copies to attack US positions?We always underestimate people in other nations and overestimate our own cleverness.
As a GI, I learned that tracers work both ways.I think robots will do too.
It is possibly true that those on the other side will also develop fighting robots, but the free world does have better technical resources, so we will have the upper hand for a while, at least. In addition, we will probably be able to utilize ECM against the enemy robots and reduce their effectiveness a bit. On the other side, we could always resort to multi-layer nuclear carpetbombing which would neutralize some opposition troops fairly well. At that point the other side would probably not have a similar response option handy.
From some of the pictures I've seen they look kind of like Chinese toys only bigger that you get in a Happy Meal. I wonder how long it will be before Toys R Us are selling things that look like that and then how long an engineer (like the ones that read this mag) "Upgrade" one of the toys.
I was surprised at first about how many of the smaller robots look like toys, but I probably shouldn't be, since they're using the same basic technology and design ideas to solve similar design problems.
Beth, Robots can be used to serve many purposes. Most of the robots are used in military warfare, space applications and atomic reactors, where human interactions are not possible. But that doesn't mean that robots are using only for such purposes, it can be used in industries and hospitals. Now a day's hospitals are also making use of robots service in ICUs and Operation (Surgery) theatre for assisting doctors.
@MyDesign: I know robots can be deployed for many great purposes, including these military applications. Being able to send a robot into harm's way instead of a soldier (or a rescue worker, for that matter) is invaluable and I applaud all the innovation and technical progress being made in order to do so.
In cases where the task is very repeatable and requires no thought a robot would be very helpful in eliminating mistakes due to fatique or workers not paying attention. However, there are some cases where independant thought would be required. I'm thinking when I go into the IR I want a person telling me to count down from 10 to 1 not Mr. Roboto.
From a jobs standpoint I think of how being able to program such robots would be a good technical skill.
Sometimes it becomes imperative to defend one's country, and even one's self. The fundamental nature of defense requires more strength, of some kind, than the entity being defended against. In quite a few cases, having strength that is obviously greater than an adversary has made conflict avoidable. Sane folks will generally avoid a conflict where the obvious outcome is painful defeat. Consider that President Regan defeated the formidable USSR with the "Star Wars" defense system without any human casualties.
Robots used in warfare will allow our troops to avoid a lot of really bad situations, and they should therefore bring a reduction of casualties on our side. An added advantage will be the psychological effect on the opposition when they encounter things that have no fear. That may prove to be a valuable unintended consequence of using robots.
But what happens when its OUR troops that encounter killing machines that have no fear? This will cost lives, not save lives. Humans always seem to think that the "other side" are idiots. But witness the recent capture of the drone by Iran. I suspect they spoofed the drone's GPS into thinking it was back home safely so it simply landed. Not a shot was fired. All technology can be weaponized. The future does not seem rosey for humans unless we all realize that killing other people will not solve the majority of the problems.
I think the point about the tendency to assume the other side are idiots is a very good one. From what I've seen, it's not just the US, or those nations we currently call friends, that are working on R&D for autonomous lethalized robots.
Ann, sorry to get political, but from reading the news it is hard not to get the impression that those who are unfriendly towards th US and its' allies are concentrating on autonomous, lethalized humans, not robots. I know of at least one occasion in which a bomb disposal robot was deployed to disarm a suicide bomber who had been shot and wounded, and it was unclear whether he was still cabable of triggering his IED.
Battar, if you mean suicide bombers, yes, they've been around for some time and we've all heard of them. But I'm not sure what your point is--what do you see as the connection between them and these robots?
Ann, you raised to possibility of a future conflict in which unmanned military robots would, in effect, be fighting each other, or more to the point, aasigned to destroy or disable the oppositions' robots (which would be similarly tasked). I'm pointing out the extreme unliklihood of such a scenario, given that the current regimes and organizations which represent a threat to the US are not typically equipped with high-tech weaponry.
Battar, thanks for the clarification. Actually, I believe someone else raised that possibility, since I don't tend to think that way. In any case, I think you've made a good point about what, or rather who, our lethalized robots will be fighting.
Robotic systems absolutely fascinate me.Large or small, no matter how functional, they continue to grab my attention.With that being said, they also make me realize how marvelously complex the human body is.Could there ever be a computer better designed to drive the human robot than the three pound mass sitting on our shoulders?I don't think so.I fully agree with attempts to send robots where humans can't or shouldn't go.I have a buddy whose son served two tours in Iraq.One conversation with him will make you a believer in that robotic systems do save lives and continuing development is mandatory—especially for our soldiers and marines in far-flung theatres.
Robotic Systems are fascinating and have come a long way from the days of working in industrial environments. I remember my first engineering job right out of college was to learn how to program a GMFanuc Industrial robot. Man, talk about a cool job and at that time (1986) the teach pendant was the device to program the robot to perform industrial jobs such as welding and painting. Now with today's wireless technology and visual programming software, robotic systems can easily developed and deployed in all types of applications including the military sector as illustrated in the slideshow.
I agree completely.My first experience with a "teach pendant" involved programming a SCARA (Selective Compliant Assembly Robot Arm) for a "pick and place", four axis robot.This device dispensed an acrylic adhesive used to adhere a stainless steel overlay onto a painted aluminized steel panel.The system itself was designed for us by LOCTITE Adhesives.We were able to reduce the cost of the assembly by approximately $3.00 per panel and came out as heroes.Most of the saving resulted from the reduction of labor due to replacing double-sided tape with the adhesive.It was a great learning experience and one in which I certainly value as an engineer.Many thanks for your comments.Bob J.
I worked on a Glass Shuttle Robotic system which had a robot to pick up windshields and place them on a small shuttle conveyor that carried them to another robot. This robot removed the windshields off the conveyor and placed them on the automobile where a final robot applied urethane. Over 5 years the Glass Shuttle Robotic system paid for itself in replacing 3 employee salaries with benefits. The 3 displaced workers found jobs in the trim shop. So a happy ending can be achieved when replacing the workforce with robotics if its plan correctly! I'm glad you enjoyed my comments.
Spears, bow & arrows, swords, catapults, shields, knight's armor, guns, machine guns, etc.... Man has used technology to try to gain a weapon's advantage since the dawn of time. It is not that you assume that your opponent is an idiot, quite the contrary; you assume he is very smart. That is why you have to try to stay one step ahead.
Part of the defination of a robot is to perform tasks that are hazardous to people.
Looks like they are arming a varity of remote control cars with beefed up drive systems.
It is my opinion that military robots should be human sized. Able to use equipment designed and built for human soldiers without modification must be the goal. Even if the robot is a premative telepresence robot would have large advantages. It is difficult to injure a soldier in iowa that is fighting in solmala.
I would point out that unless iRobot has changed it's position , They do not allow weapons on any robot they provide.
And the Military has, so far, bought robots from them anyway because they can be used in many other ways. A robot following a soldier carrying most of his/her load can make the soldier far more effective for days.
I will also note a number of the other robots appear to be based off the early iRobot designs. Packbot has been in operations for years now.
As always, altering/recreating something you have seen is far easier than creating something from scratch, thus similar robots will abound.
Now, Here is your next Conundrum:
Are you aware of the FIRST robotics competition in schools? It is promoting STEM through robotics cometition. Where do you thing all those New Robotics engineers are going to end up? And what will they be designing?
Fortunately I just read a story about an early success from there, a young man now in college created a non profit giving powered wheelchairs to those who can't afford them. They take old, broken or otherwise unused chairs and refubish them. If a chair is not repairable they take it apart and keep the parts for other repairs. And it is all run by former High School kids in FIRST robotics classes.
A human sized robot would be limited to going where a human could go, which could be a real limitation. Besides that, what "human sized" equipment, aside from weapons, would a robot need that would not function better if they were designed for robotic use? Most robots don't need the human survival equipment and personal safety items, and I just can't imagine that a robot with a humans K-Bar would be that useful. Even most of the rescue robots are not human sized or proportioned, although some of them are sort of scary looking.
For non-millitary applications, robots with a more human looking form may be a good choice, because that covers such a wide range of applications.
R.G. Make those robots nine feet tall and they would be incredibly scary. A real interesting concept. Of course they would need to have red laser beam "eyes" as well. Truely the stuff of ones worst nightmares, I would guess.
Robots fighting wars in place of humans is a great idea until they band together and decide to fight us humans instead. In that case, let me be the first to welcome our new robotic overlords and I look forward to a life of servitude.
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