Gunslinging Robots Gear Up

A section of the rubberized dam containing the man made Tempe Town Lake collapsed Tuesday night, July 20, 2010, in Tempe, Ariz. sending a wall of water into the normally dry Salt River bed. (AP Photo/Tom Tingle - The Arizona Republic) MARICOPA COUNTY OUT - NO MAGS - NO SALES - MANDATOR CREDIT AP Photo/Tom Tingle

The rain is turning to snow on a blustery January morning, and all the men gathered in a parking lot here surely would prefer to be inside.

But the weather couldn't matter less to the robotic sharpshooter they are here to watch as it splashes through puddles, the barrel of its machine gun pointing the way like Pinocchio's nose.

The Army is preparing to send 18 of these remote-controlled robotic warriors to fight in Iraq beginning in March or April.

Made by a small Massachusetts company, the SWORDS, short for Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems, will be the first armed robotic vehicles to see combat, years ahead of the larger Future Combat System vehicles currently under development by big defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics Corp.

It's easy to humanize the SWORDS (a tendency robotics researchers say is only human) as it moves out of the flashy lobby of an office building and into the cold with nary a shiver.

Military officials like to compare the roughly three-foot-high robots favorably to human soldiers: They don't need to be trained, fed or clothed. They can be boxed up and warehoused between wars. They never complain. And there are no letters to write home if they meet their demise in battle.

But officials are quick to point out that these are not the autonomous killer robots of science fiction. A SWORDS robot shoots only when its human operator presses a button after identifying a target on video shot by the robot's cameras.

"The only difference is that his weapon is not at his shoulder, it's up to half a mile a way," said Bob Quinn, general manager of Talon robots for Foster-Miller Inc., the Waltham, Mass., company that makes the SWORDS. As one Marine fresh out of boot camp told Quinn upon seeing the robot: "This is my invisibility cloak."

Quinn said it was a "bootstrap development process" to convert a Talon robot, which has been in military service since 2000, from its main mission - defusing roadside bombs in Iraq- into the gunslinging SWORDS.

It was a joint development process between the Army and Foster-Miller, a robotics firm bought in November by QinetiQ Group PLC, which is a partnership between the British Ministry of Defence and the Washington holding company The Carlyle Group.

Army officials and employees of the robotics firm heard from soldiers "who said 'My brothers are being killed out here. We love the EOD (explosive ordnance disposal), but let's put some weapons on it,"' said Quinn.

Working with soldiers and engineers at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, it took just six months and only about $2 million in development money to outfit a Talon with weapons, according to Quinn and Anthony Sebasto, a technology manager at Picatinny.

The Talon had already proven itself to be pretty rugged. One was blown off the roof of a Humvee and into a nearby river by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Soldiers simply opened its shrapnel-pocked control unit and drove the robot out of the river, according to Quinn.

The $200,000, armed version will carry standard-issue Squad Automatic Weapons, either the M249, which fires 5.56-millimeter rounds at a rate of 750 per minute, or the M240, which can fire about 700 to 1,000 7.62-millimeter rounds per minute. The SWORDS can fire about 300 rounds using the M240 and about 350 rounds using the M249 before needing to reload.

All its optics equipment - the four cameras, night vision and zoom lenses - were already in the Army's inventory.

"It's important to stress that not everything has to be super high tech," said Sebasto. "You can integrate existing componentry and create a revolutionary capability."

The SWORDS in the parking lot at the headquarters of the cable news station CNBC had just finished showing off for the cameras, climbing stairs, scooting between cubicles, even broadcasting some of its video on the air.

Its developers say its tracks, like those on a tank, can overcome rock piles and barbed wire, though it needs a ride to travel faster than 4 mph.

Running on lithium ion batteries, it can operate for 1 to 4 hours at a time, depending on the mission. Operators work the robot using a 30-pound control unit which has two joysticks, a handful of buttons and a video screen. Quinn says that may eventually be replaced by a "Gameboy" type of controller hooked up to virtual reality goggles.

The Army has been testing it over the past year at Picatinny and the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland to ensure it won't malfunction and can stand up to radio jammers and other countermeasures. (Sebasto wouldn't comment on what happens if the robot and its controller fall into enemy hands.)

Its developers say the SWORDS not only allows its operators to fire at enemies without exposing themselves to return fire, but also can make them more accurate.

A typical soldier who could hit a target the size of a basketball from 300 meters away could hit a target the size of a nickel with the SWORDS, according Quinn.

The better accuracy stems largely from the fact that its gun is mounted on a stable platform and fired electronically, rather than by a soldier's hands, according to Staff Sgt. Santiago Tordillos of the EOD Technology Directorate at Picatinny. Gone are such issues as trigger recoil, anticipation problems, and pausing the breathing cycle while aiming a weapon.

"It eliminates the majority of shooting errors you would have," said Tordillos.

Chances are good the SWORDS will get even more deadly in the future. It has been tested with the larger .50 caliber machine guns as well as rocket and grenade launchers - even an experimental weapon made by the Australian company Metal Storm LLC that packs multiple rocket rounds into a single barrel, allowing for much more rapid firing.

"We've fired 70 shots at Picatinny and we were 70 for 70 hitting the bull's-eye," said Sebasto, boasting of the arsenal's success with a Vietnam-era rocket launcher mounted on a SWORDS.

There are bound to be many eyes watching SWORDS as it heads to battle. Its tracks will one day be followed by the larger vehicles of the Future Combat System, such as six-wheel-drive MULE under development by Lockheed Martin, a 2.5-ton vehicle with motors in each wheel hub to make it more likely to survive.

The Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also recently awarded contracts to aid research of robots that one day could be dropped into combat from airplanes and others meant to scale walls using electrostatic energy - also known as "static cling."

Many of the vehicles being developed for the FCS will have some autonomy, meaning they'll navigate rough terrain, avoid obstacles and make decisions about certain tasks on their own.

They may be able to offer cues to their operators when potential foes are near, but it's doubtful any of them will ever be allowed to make the decision to pull the trigger, according to Jim Lowrie, president of Perceptek Inc., a Littleton, Colo., firm that is developing robotics systems for the military.

"For the foreseeable future, there always will be a person in the loop who makes the decision on friend or foe. That's a hard problem to determine autonomously," said Lowrie.


By Michael P. Regan
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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