FORT BENNING, Ga. — 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
“Wars will be started very easily and with minimal costs” as automation
increases, predicted Wendell Wallach, a scholar at the Yale Interdisciplinary
Center for Bioethics and chairman of its technology and ethics study group.
Civilians will be at greater risk, people in Mr. Wallach’s camp argue, because
of the challenges in distinguishing between fighters and innocent bystanders.
That job is maddeningly difficult for human beings on the ground. It only
becomes more difficult when a device is remotely operated.
This problem has already arisen with Predator aircraft, which find their targets
with the aid of soldiers on the ground but are operated from the United States.
Because civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have died as a result of collateral
damage or mistaken identities, Predators have generated international opposition
and prompted accusations of war crimes.
But robot combatants are supported by a range of military strategists, officers
and weapons designers — and even some human rights advocates.
“A lot of people fear artificial intelligence,” said John Arquilla, executive
director of the Information Operations Center at the Naval Postgraduate School.
“I will stand my artificial intelligence against your human any day of the week
and tell you that my A.I. will pay more attention to the rules of engagement and
create fewer ethical lapses than a human force.”
Dr. Arquilla argues that weapons systems controlled by software will not act out
of anger and malice and, in certain cases, can already make better decisions on
the battlefield than humans.
His faith in machines is already being tested.
“Some of us think that the right organizational structure for the future is one
that skillfully blends humans and intelligent machines,” Dr. Arquilla said. “We
think that that’s the key to the mastery of 21st-century military affairs.”
Automation has proved vital in the wars America is fighting. In the air in Iraq
and Afghanistan, unmanned aircraft with names like Predator, Reaper, Raven and
Global Hawk have kept countless soldiers from flying sorties. Moreover, the
military now routinely uses more than 6,000 tele-operated robots to search
vehicles at checkpoints as well as to disarm one of the enemies’ most effective
weapons: the I.E.D., or improvised explosive device.
Yet the shift to automated warfare may offer only a fleeting strategic advantage
to the United States. Fifty-six nations are now developing robotic weapons, said
Ron Arkin, a Georgia Institute of Technology roboticist and a
government-financed researcher who has argued that it is possible to design
“ethical” robots that conform to the laws of war and the military rules of
But the ethical issues are far from simple. Last month in Germany, an
international group including artificial intelligence researchers, arms control
specialists, human rights advocates and government officials called for
agreements to limit the development and use of tele-operated and autonomous
The group, known as the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, said
warfare was accelerated by automated systems, undermining the capacity of human
beings to make responsible decisions. For example, a gun that was designed to
function without humans could shoot an attacker more quickly and without a
soldier’s consideration of subtle factors on the battlefield.
“The short-term benefits being derived from roboticizing aspects of warfare are
likely to be far outweighed by the long-term consequences,” said Mr. Wallach,
the Yale scholar, suggesting that wars would occur more readily and that a
technological arms race would develop.
As the debate continues, so do the Army’s automation efforts. In 2001 Congress
gave the Pentagon the goal of making one-third of the ground combat vehicles
remotely operated by 2015. That seems unlikely, but there have been significant
steps in that direction.
For example, a wagonlike Lockheed Martin device that can carry more than 1,000
pounds of gear and automatically follow a platoon at up to 17 miles per hour is
scheduled to be tested in Afghanistan early next year.
For rougher terrain away from roads, engineers at Boston Dynamics are designing
a walking robot to carry gear. Scheduled to be completed in 2012, it will carry
400 pounds as far as 20 miles, automatically following a soldier.
The four-legged modules have an extraordinary sense of balance, can climb steep
grades and even move on icy surfaces. The robot’s “head” has an array of sensors
that give it the odd appearance of a cross between a bug and a dog. Indeed, an
earlier experimental version of the robot was known as Big Dog.
This month the Army and the Australian military held a contest for teams
designing mobile micro-robots — some no larger than model cars — that, operating
in swarms, can map a potentially hostile area, accurately detecting a variety of
Separately, a computer scientist at the Naval Postgraduate School has proposed
that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency finance a robotic submarine
system that would intelligently control teams of dolphins to detect underwater
mines and protect ships in harbors.
“If we run into a conflict with Iran, the likelihood of them trying to do
something in the Strait of Hormuz is quite high,” said Raymond Buettner, deputy
director of the Information Operations Center at the Naval Postgraduate School.
“One land mine blowing up one ship and choking the world’s oil supply pays for
the entire Navy marine mammal program and its robotics program for a long time.”
Such programs represent a resurgence in the development of autonomous systems in
the wake of costly failures and the cancellation of the Army’s most ambitious
such program in 2009. That program was once estimated to cost more than $300
billion and expected to provide the Army with an array of manned and unmanned
vehicles linked by a futuristic information network.
Now, the shift toward developing smaller, lighter and less expensive systems is
unmistakable. Supporters say it is a consequence of the effort to cause fewer
civilian casualties. The Predator aircraft, for example, is being equipped with
smaller, lighter weapons than the traditional 100-pound Hellfire missile, with a
smaller killing radius.
At the same time, military technologists assert that tele-operated,
semi-autonomous and autonomous robots are the best way to protect the lives of
Army Special Forces units have bought six lawn-mower-size robots — the type
showcased in the Robotics Rodeo — for classified missions, and the National
Guard has asked for dozens more to serve as sentries on bases in Iraq and
Afghanistan. These units are known as the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System,
or Maars, and they are made by a company called QinetiQ North America.
The Maars robots first attracted the military’s interest as a defensive system
during an Army Ranger exercise here in 2008. Used as a nighttime sentry against
infiltrators equipped with thermal imaging vision systems, the battery-powered
Maars unit remained invisible — it did not have the heat signature of a human
being — and could “shoot” intruders with a laser tag gun without being detected
itself, said Bob Quinn, a vice president at QinetiQ.
Maars is the descendant of an earlier experimental system built by QinetiQ.
Three armed prototypes were sent to Iraq and created a brief controversy after
they pointed a weapon inappropriately because of a software bug.
However, QinetiQ executives said the real shortcoming of the system was that it
was rejected by Army legal officers because it did not follow military rules of
engagement — for example, using voice warnings and then tear gas before firing
guns. As a consequence, Maars has been equipped with a loudspeaker as well as a
launcher so it can issue warnings and fire tear gas grenades before firing its
Remotely controlled systems like the Predator aircraft and Maars move a step
closer to concerns about the automation of warfare. What happens, ask skeptics,
when humans are taken out of decision making on firing weapons? Despite the
insistence of military officers that a human’s finger will always remain on the
trigger, the speed of combat is quickly becoming too fast for human decision
“If the decisions are being made by a human being who has eyes on the target,
whether he is sitting in a tank or miles away, the main safeguard is still
there,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington director for Human Rights Watch, which
tracks war crimes. “What happens when you automate the decision? Proponents are
saying that their systems are win-win, but that doesn’t reassure me.”
FORCE BASE, Nev. — The Air Force this fall will deploy a new generation of
pilotless airplane with the bombing power of an F-16 to help stop the stubborn
Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
is an upgraded version of the Predator, which has become one of the military's
most sought-after planes since it first appeared in Afghanistan in 2001. The
Reaper can fly three times as fast as a Predator and carry eight times more
weaponry, such as Hellfire missiles, the Air Force said.
The Reaper's greater range and speed make it better suited than the Predator to
Afghanistan with its vast, rugged terrain. The Reaper will also be deployed to
Iraq. Its speed and arms will let it track and kill moving targets able to elude
a Predator, said Brig. Gen. James Poss, director of intelligence for Air Combat
Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
Air Force officials cite the June 2006 killing of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu
Musab al-Zarqawi, who was tracked by a Predator but ultimately killed by bombs
dropped by an F-16. The Reaper "is ideal for that type of target," said Lt. Col.
Gregory Christ, director of staff at Creech.
Despite the Predator's success, field commanders wanted a faster, more lethal
alternative, said Col. Charles Bartlett, leader of the Air Force's unmanned
aircraft task force.
Such demand has prompted the Air Force to rush to train operators and crews. In
2003, the Air Force trained fewer than 40 Predator operators. In 2008, that will
soar to 160. It has trained 10 Reaper operators this year, and expects to train
19 more in 2008.
The Reaper squadron will start small and has only four aircraft, said Maj. David
Small, an Air Force spokesman. It will ultimately have 20 planes, he said.
Most Reapers, like Predators, are flown from bases in the United States, such as
Creech, which is about an hour north of the Las Vegas strip.
The Reaper carries about the same payload as the F-16 but can stay aloft as much
as eight times longer than the F-16, which must refuel about every two hours.
"You've got a lot of ammo circling overhead on call for short-notice strikes,"
said John Pike, director of the military think tank, Globalsecurity. "It seems
like a good idea."
Demand for Predator flights has exploded. This year, Predator flight hours are
expected to exceed 70,000 hours, more than triple the total in 2003.
Combat pilots say they miss the feel of flying but say remote-control aircraft
are here to stay.
"This is the future," said Chad Miner, chief of weapons and tactics at Creech, a
Predator trainer and an F-16 pilot. "I would love to … jump in an F-16 and go.
But I'm a more valuable asset to the military doing this. It's not the sexiest
answer, but it's true."
DAYTON, Ohio — As it increases its use of robots in war zones,
the military will begin using a explosive-sniffing version that will allow
soldiers to better detect roadside bombs, which account for more than 70% of
U.S. casualties in Iraq.
Fido is the first robot with an integrated explosives sensor.
Burlington, Mass.-based iRobot Corp. is filling the military's first order of
100 in this southwest Ohio city and will ship the robots over the next few
There are nearly 5,000 robots in Iraq and Afghanistan, up from about 150 in
2004. Soldiers use them to search caves and buildings for insurgents, detect
mines and ferret out roadside and car bombs.
As the war in Iraq enters its fifth year, the federal government is spending
more money on military robots and the two major U.S. robot makers have increased
Foster-Miller Inc., of Waltham, Mass., recently delivered 1,000 new robots to
the military. IRobot cranked out 385 robots last year, up from 252 in 2005.
The government will spend about $1.7 billion on ground-based military robots
between fiscal 2006 and 2012, said Bill Thomasmeyer, head of the National Center
for Defense Robotics, a congressionally funded consortium of 160 companies,
universities and government labs. That's up from $100 million in fiscal 2004.
Fido, produced at a GEM City Manufacturing and Engineering plant, represents an
improvement in bomb-detecting military robots, said Col. Terry Griffin, project
manager of the Army/Marine Corps Robotic Systems Joint Project Office at
Redstone Arsenal, Ala.
The bomb-sniffing sensor is part of the robot, with its readings displayed on
the controller along with camera images. Otherwise, a soldier would have to
approach the suspect object with a sensor or try to attach it to a robot. The
new robot has a 7-foot manipulator arm so it can use the sensor to scan the
inside and undercarriage of vehicles for bombs.
Officials would not release details of how the sensors work because of security
"The sniffer robot is a very good idea because we need some way of understanding
ambiguous situations like abandoned cars or suspicious trash piles without
putting soldiers' lives on the line," said Loren Thompson, defense analyst with
the Washington-based Lexington Institute.
Philip Coyle, senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information in
Washington, said the robots could be helpful if they are used in cases where
soldiers already suspect a bomb. But he said explosive-sniffing sensors are
susceptible to false positives triggered by explosive residues elsewhere in the
area, smoke and other contaminants.
"The soldiers can begin to lose faith in them, and they become more trouble than
they're worth," he said.
Thompson said all military robots have limitations. Their every move must be
dictated by an operator, they can be stopped by barriers or steep grades, they
are not highly agile and they can break down or be damaged, he said.
Robots range in size from tiny — 1.5-pound ones carrying cameras are tossed into
buildings to search for insurgents — to brute — 110-pound versions move rubble
and lift debris.
Fido is an upgrade of PackBot, a 52-pound robot with rubber treads, lights,
video cameras that zoom and swivel, obstacle-hurdling flippers and jointed
manipulator arms with hand-like grippers designed to disable or destroy bombs.
Each costs $165,000.
Army Staff Sgt. Shawn Baker, 26, of Olean, N.Y., has helped detect and disable
roadside bombs during two tours in Iraq. Before the robots were available, he
and fellow soldiers would stand back as far as possible with a rope and drag
hooks over the suspect devices in hopes of disarming or detonating them.
Two soldiers were killed that way, Baker said. No one in his unit has been hurt
or killed while disarming bombs since the robots arrived.
"The science and technology of this has been way out in front of the production
side," Thomasmeyer said. "We're going to start to see a payoff for all the
science and technology advancements."
IRobot posted $189 million in sales last year, up 33% from 2005. Its military
business grew 60% to about $76 million. Bob Quinn, general manager of
Foster-Miller, said his company has contracts of $320 million for military
robots and that its business has doubled every year for the past four years.