A cameraman films a Tomahawk cruise missile as it flies toward Iraq after being launched from the AEGIS guided missile cruiser USS San Jacinto March 25, 2003 in the Red Sea.
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.
If the U.S. follows through with a military strike on Syria, the weapon of choice will likely be the Tomahawk cruise missile.
Cruise missiles have been used by the U.S. as far back as 1991 in the Gulf War, and as recently as 2011 when they were fired against 20 targets in Libya.
Some of the past missions relied on the Block III Tomahawk cruise missile, which is programmed in advance to strike a specific target and then launched. Today, the Block IV missile is also in use, featuring increased capabilities, including technology that allows it to change course or targets after it has been launched. The Block IV can also hover for extended periods of time before it actually strikes.
A U.S. Navy official confirmed to Discovery News that GPS technology is used to update the navigation system within the weapon. Still, there are possible stumbling blocks that can cause the missiles to be ineffective.
“There is always the possibility that the intelligence being used is hours or days old, and by that time the target has been moved or human shields brought in to protect the site,” said Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Block IV also has its own camera on board to do battle assessment, to see if a re-strike is necessary.”
Although a U.S. Navy official told Discovery News via email that the accuracy level of cruise missiles is proprietary information, Eisenstadt said use of cruise missiles is not an exact science.
“These missiles have a precision level of about five to 10 meters, which is probably as accurate as you need for just about any target,” said Eisenstadt, who also directs the military and securities program at the Institute. “But they do not have a penetrating warhead. Basically it’s just a high explosive warhead like a regular bomb. Tomahawks have 1000 pounds of explosives, whereas penetrating warheads generally have more like between 2000 and 5000 pounds of explosives.”
There are reportedly four destroyers in the Mediterranean near Syria now, each capable of firing 96 missiles, although not all of the missiles on board each ship are Tomahawk cruise missiles. It is possible the vessels are carrying a mix of Tomahawks, surface to air missiles to be used against aircraft, and ballistic missiles. They may even be anti-submarine rocket launch torpedoes on board.
As for the Tomahawk, once it is launched, its wings fold out during flight, and it can hit a fixed or moving target.
Critics of the proposed mission point out that cruise missiles alone wouldn’t be enough to cause lasting damage to the Syrian army’s elite units. That, coupled with a host of variables and unknowns have caused some legislators to reject the idea of a military strike.
Two U.S. Navy BGM-109C Tomahawk cruise missiles in flight over a mountain range.Getty
Of greatest concern to some are possibilities of collateral damage, especially civilian casualties. Although Syria is known to have amassed large amounts of deadly chemicals, Tomahawk strikes would not go directly to facilities that house the chemicals. Instead, they are more likely to target delivery systems and command centers due to high risk involved in hitting the chemicals themselves.
“The administration has said they’re not going to hit chemical stockpiles so that chemicals don’t get released into the atmosphere,” Eisenstadt said. “There are too many ifs involved with that. The variables include things like wind speed, atmospheric conditions and whether the building you hit falls in on itself. Also unknown is whether the chemicals are stored in the basement or on top floors above ground.”
As for the danger of civilian deaths, that is another unknown. In the past some missions failed, causing the missile to crash short of its target. That increases the chance of civilian hits. Then there is the possibility of Syria using human shields.
As with any mission, timing is critical. “The bottom line is that we have been telegraphing our intention to bomb Syria, and they have had time to disperse and evacuate various targets we would be likely to hit,” Eisenstadt said.
"If we don’t have the right intelligence, we could be hitting empty buildings. Smart weapons become dumb weapons when you don’t have accurate intelligence.”
Even though the available missiles and technology have limitations, a strike seems imminent to many observers. With Syria suspected of killing more than 1,400 of its own citizens with chemical weapons, Secretary of State John Kerry offered his perspective on a U.S. military response late last week: “Some cite the risk of doing things. We have to ask what is the risk of doing nothing.”