Every day brings new headlines of the warfighting capabilities of drones patrolling the skies over Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and any number of places where strife continues.
While pilots operate the drones remotely from bases back in the U.S., there are a host of smaller robots that deserve a bit of attention as well. From scrubbing barnacles off aircraft carriers to spying on bad guys from the clouds, this new class of autonomous military robot could see action on or near the battlefield in the coming year.
Here, Lance Corporal Joe Henkel checks out the MARCbot iV, a remote-controlled robot used in IED investigations.
American Unmanned Systems
This spherical, 54-pound bot rolls across land, mud, rocks and water with a spy camera hidden inside its fiberglass shell. An internal pendulum keeps the two cameras stabilized as the shell rotates and provides motion.
Connecticut-based American Unmanned Systems initially designed Guardbot to rove across the Martian surface for a European Space Agency mission that was later scrubbed, so president Peter Muhlrad switched to military and commercial applications, mainly guard and reconnaissance duty. It was also deployed recently by a Mexican television network during a live soccer match at Mexico City's Azteca Stadium.
Guardbot is undergoing tests by the Marines in Quantico, Va., and Camp LeJeune, N.C., Muhlrad said. An aquarium in Florida is also interested in using Guardbot to interact with its dolphins.
World Surveillance Group Inc.
Argus One AUV
This 113-foot flexible airship drone "wiggles like a snake" when faced with strong winds, rather than being tossed around like a balloon, said Dan Erdberg, director of business development for World Surveillance Group Inc., based at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. That means it can hover in at 10,000 to 15,000 feet above a target with minimal effort.
The helium-filled composite material bags are covered with an outer layer of ripstop nylon. Argus One also has a stealthy, almost-zero radar footprint, making it nearly invisible while supporting a platform of high-resolution spy cameras or other remote-sensing devices, Erdberg said.
"This could dwell over an area for a long time, if it sees people you could send in one with arms," he said. "It's in the clouds and literally impossible to pick up."
Argus is undergoing tests at the Department of Energy's Nevada test facility in December (that's next door to the infamous Area 51).
As any boat owner knows, scraping barnacles is the bane of a sailor's existence. But for the Navy, "marine bio-fouling" of sea grasses, barnacle colonies and tube warms costs taxpayers an estimated $1 billion a year.
That's because ships coated with this biological material travel more slowly through the water, and so their engines burn more fuel. Sea Robotics "Hull Bug" crawls across the ship's hull cleaning bio-junk without using harsh copper- based chemicals that can damage the marine environment.
Sea Robotics President Don Darling says the device sticks to the hull using a special negative pressure device, and cleans with spinning rotor brushes.
Autonomous sensors look for bio-material without the need of an operator guiding it -- and Darling says it can clean an entire ship in a day while it's docked in port.
iRobot Warrior 710
This Bedford, Mass.-based maker of robotic vacuum cleaners, gutter routers and kids toys also supplies ground-based rovers to the military.
At configurations up to 500 pounds, the new Warrior 710 is significantly bigger and brawnier than previous models and can pick up a 220-pound object within six feet, according to Tim Trainer, vice president operations for iRobot's government and industrial robots division. The Warrior 710 climbs stairs and slopes up to a 45-degree angle, rolls over rocks and can carry 150 pounds.
It's designed for IED disposal and clearing buildings. This robot also has a delicate extendable hand that can move around corners, open a car door and remove a bomb on its own.
Engineers at Lockheed Martin's research lab took inspiration from maple seeds that whirl through the air as they drop.
The Samarai Flyer weighs less than half a pound and is 16 inches long -- ideal for stuffing in a backpack and launching by hand.
It can take off from the ground with its mini-spy camera or possibly an armament package. It's mechanically simple with only two moving parts, and was built using 3-D printing technology for its maiden public flight in August. Check out video here.
Bill Borgia, leader of Lockheed Martin's intelligent robotics laboratory, says the camera spins at the same rate as the body, but special stop-motion video software cancels out the rotation and allows the operator to get a steady stream of images.
"You could take this out of your backpack, throw it like a boomerang and see around a corner of a building or over outside a window and see if there are any bad guys inside," Borgia said.
The biggest engineering challenge is to boost the Samarai Flyer's endurance, according to Borgia. Hopefully next year it will hover for more than 30 minutes, he said.
The reality of a "Robocop" U.S. military isn’t science-fiction any more. So says the director of the ’80s cult classic reboot.
“We already have the drones, we’re going to have robots soon,” José Padilha told FoxNews.com in a conversation about the automation of violence in combat.
“It’s going to happen, which means that every single country will have to have legislation and decide whether they’re going to use robots for war or not, which means that they’re going to have negotiations at the U.N., and they’ll decide what will be accepted and what won’t be accepted and so forth.
“This is a real issue. It’s bigger than people hunting animals remotely, and it’s bigger than using drones.”
Gen. Robert Cone, head of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, acknowledged recently that robotic warfare is coming, explaining that the Army is working toward becoming “a smaller, more lethal, deployable and agile force” by replacing soldiers with robots and unmanned platforms.
“I’ve got clear guidance to think about what if you could robotically perform some of the tasks in terms of maneuverability, in terms of the future of the force,” Cone said last month at the Army Aviation Symposium in Arlington, Va. “There are functions in the brigade that we could automate -- robots or manned/unmanned teaming -- and lower the number of people that are involved, given the fact that people are our major cost.”
Paul Verhoeven directed the original “Robocop” in 1987. As in Padilha’s reboot, the movie portrayed a fallen cop in the future who is transformed into a man-machine hybrid, programmed to rid a violent, terrorized Detroit of crime.
“The connection between machines and the automation of violence and fascism is pretty clear -- and Verhoeven saw that,” Padilha said. “He created a character who embodied that. So, Robocop is a man who is fighting against the directives of the machine.”
Padilha cited a recent report in the U.K.’s Telegraph in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, warned about the ethical concerns of automated warfare.
“There’s a danger that something that feels easy to do and without risk to yourself, almost antiseptic to the person shooting,” said McChrystal told the BBC’s “Today” show. “And so if it lowers the threshold for taking operations because it feels easy, there’s danger in that.”
Joel Kinnaman stars in Columbia Pictures' movie RoboCop.COLUMBIA PICTURES INDUSTRIES
Removing human soldiers from warfare would also remove conflicts of conscience from the act of war, according to Padilha.
“I mean, America got out of Vietnam because American soldiers were dying and there was a lot of pressure on them to stop the war,” the Brazilian director said. “America got out of Iraq because soldiers were dying. Now, when you take away the soldiers and you replace them with robots, what’s going to happen?
“Or think about it in another way: if the state gives an order to a policeman and the order is really preposterous and violent, the policeman can say no -- he can revoke it and argue. But if you put a machine in there, there is no criticism. There’s even a third way to think about it, which is every single police department or war group -- the perpetrator of atrocities -- has been trained to be brainwashed to behave mechanically.”
While the reboot of “Robocop” still has plenty of shoot ‘em up violence, the principal characters are named after famous philosophers; Hubert Dreyfus, (Zach Grenier's character, Senator Hubert Dreyfuss) Wilfrid Sellers (Michael Keaton’s character, Raymond Sellars, the CEO of OmniCorp) and Jonathan Bennett (Gary Oldman’s character, Dr. Dennett Norton) — which is no accident.
“Are we just machines, just physical machines, or is there something different in human beings?” Padilha asked. “Those issues we talk about in the movie -- they’re there, embedded in the scenes. In the movie, we have the emotional core, the love of Alex Murphy for his family, enabling him to recover his humanity and to overcome the machine.
“In a certain sense, you can think about it metaphorically. If you have an army of robots and you go into Tehran and you have everybody come out of their houses with their hands up for a non-invasive scanning procedure -- you don’t do that to people you really love, do you? I mean, this is dehumanizing. At a certain level, the way you fight the automation of violence is by making relationships human.”
But Padilha is under no illusion that “Robocop” is going to change the world. “We don’t solve the problems of society on the screen,” he said. “We just put them there so people can think about them.
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