American soldiers patrolling dangerous streets will soon be accompanied by autonomous robots programmed to scan the area with thermal imaging and send live images back to the command center.
Likewise, squads of infantrymen hiking through mountains will be helped by a wagon train of robots carrying extra water, ammo and protective gear.
Such scenarios are but a few years down the road, according to robotic researchers and U.S. military officials.
"Robots allow [soldiers] to be more lethal and engaged in their surroundings," said Lt. Col. Willie Smith, chief of Unmanned Ground Vehicles at Fort Benning, Ga. "I think there's more work to be done but I'm expecting we'll get there."
Army leaders last month evaluated autonomous robots that move through water, sand and up rocky hills. Robots shown during a week-long demonstration at Fort Benning were designed to carry 1,000 pounds of gear, follow foot soldiers on long treks, scan for land mines and carry wounded soldiers to safety.
5D Robotics, Northrop Grumman Corp., QinetiQ and HDT Robotics and other companies showed off autonomous robots during the event.
Part of the program focused on weaponized robots while other demonstrations showed how robots can help and protect U.S. soldiers in the field.
"Ten years from now, there will probably be one soldier for every 10 robots," Scott Hartley, a senior research engineer and co-founder of 5D Robotics, told Computerworld. "Each soldier could have one or five robots flanking him, looking for enemies, scanning for landmines. Robots can save lives."
The U.S. Army and the Marine Corps have tested autonomous robots in the field.
According to QinetiQ, they have many different robots that have been tested by military officials. Some are already actively used.
British military forces, for instance, use QinetiQ's 10-pound Dragon Runner robot, which can be carried in a backpack and then tossed into a building or a cave to capture and relay surveillance video.
Staff Sgt. Douglas Briggs, Maneuver Battle Lab NCO stationed at Fort Benning, said he worked with robots in Iraq and is prepared for more to join the ranks.
"It's a good thing," said Briggs. "It keeps soldiers out of harms way. If we see what we think is an IED, instead of sending a guy out, we can send a robot out with a video camera. We could see if it's a piece of trash or an actual IED."
Scott Hartley, a co-founder of 5D Robotics, said there may be 10 robots to every soldier in the U.S. military by 2023. (Image: Sharon Gaudin)
He's hesitant to have a robot carry his gear but knows he'll have to adjust that thinking.
"It would not be a bad thing but I'm traditional," said Briggs. "I'm used to carrying my pack. I'm sure it will come and I'll have to get used to it. It comes back to old ways and incorporating new stuff. It's like when we started to use GPS instead of a compass. I trusted my compass. I had to get used to GPS."
Briggs, like other officers at the robotics demonstrations, said he needs to see the robots prove themselves. "We need to see it's going to do what they say it will do."
Hartley said the biggest challenge facing robot developers is convincing military leaders that the machines can be trusted.
"It's about building trust," he said. "When you have a system that drives itself, you don't want it to scare people or confuse them. If the robot lurches every time it moves, that's not natural. It needs a more biological motion. We want to see things that act like us. That engenders trust."
Phil Coker, director of integrated platform systems at Northrop Grumman, said developers have to make sure robots aren't difficult for soldiers to manage and control.
To avoid that, Northrop Grumman and other robotic companies are including technology to allow voice control and the ability to follow or lead soldiers without being tethered. The companies are also working on retro-traverse capabilities that enable robots to recall routes taken so that can backtrack to the start of the trip..
Retro-traverse technology would allow soldiers pinned down by an enemy to send robots to base locations to get water or ammunition.
"It's tremendously important to keep [soldiers] free from having to operate a robot," said Coker. "Otherwise, handling a robot is a full-time job. Concentrating on the job and not the robot keeps them alive."
Robots must also be secure to meet military needs. The system must be protected against hacking and allow for encrypted radio communications.
Keith Singleton, chief of the Unmanned Systems Team for the Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Benning, said demonstrations like last month's are important to keep the military up-to-date on the capabilities of the latest technology. "Sometimes we have lofty dreams about what we can do," he said. "We've been looking at robots for years. This shows us what's actually available."
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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