Robot Wars – For Real

Robot WarsI always liked the Robot Wars organized by Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Laboratories in the ’80s and ’90s. I wasn’t the only one and eventually they graduated from cool underground happenings to a TV series (yes, I know the creators will claim that SRL was not the inspiration, but I ain’t buying it!). Now the United States military is gearing up for real life robot wars. The New York Times‘ tech expert John Markoff reports from Fort Benning, Georgia:

War would be a lot safer, the Army says, if only more of it were fought by robots.

And while smart machines are already very much a part of modern warfare, the Army and its contractors are eager to add more. New robots — none of them particularly human-looking — are being designed to handle a broader range of tasks, from picking off snipers to serving as indefatigable night sentries.

In a mock city here used by Army Rangers for urban combat training, a 15-inch robot with a video camera scuttles around a bomb factory on a spying mission. Overhead an almost silent drone aircraft with a four-foot wingspan transmits images of the buildings below. Onto the scene rolls a sinister-looking vehicle on tank treads, about the size of a riding lawn mower, equipped with a machine gun and a grenade launcher.

Three backpack-clad technicians, standing out of the line of fire, operate the three robots with wireless video-game-style controllers. One swivels the video camera on the armed robot until it spots a sniper on a rooftop. The machine gun pirouettes, points and fires in two rapid bursts. Had the bullets been real, the target would have been destroyed.

The machines, viewed at a “Robotics Rodeo” last month at the Army’s training school here, not only protect soldiers, but also are never distracted, using an unblinking digital eye, or “persistent stare,” that automatically detects even the smallest motion. Nor do they ever panic under fire.

“One of the great arguments for armed robots is they can fire second,” said Joseph W. Dyer, a former vice admiral and the chief operating officer of iRobot, which makes robots that clear explosives as well as the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. When a robot looks around a battlefield, he said, the remote technician who is seeing through its eyes can take time to assess a scene without firing in haste at an innocent person.

Yet the idea that robots on wheels or legs, with sensors and guns, might someday replace or supplement human soldiers is still a source of extreme controversy. Because robots can stage attacks with little immediate risk to the people who operate them, opponents say that robot warriors lower the barriers to warfare, potentially making nations more trigger-happy and leading to a new technological arms race…

[continues in the New York Times]

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