Hermes the robot edged its way into the dark cave, its treads spinning over the dust and small rocks until a boulder appeared in its path. No problem. The tiny machine dropped its side arms, lifted onto and over the boulder, and rolled on, its two cameras sending images to an operator waiting outside.
The war in Afghanistan is the first time robots are being used by the U.S. military as tools for combat. Proponents believe sending them into caves, buildings or other dark areas ahead of troops will help prevent U.S. casualties.
On Monday, Hermes was first to enter many of the dozen caves being searched by troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, based in Fort Bragg, N.C. Mounted with two cameras and rolling on lime-green wheels and tan treads, the 1-foot-tall, 3-foot-long Hermes disappeared into the darkness, sending images back to a controller who used a joystick to maneuver the robot over boulders, around obstacles and through ground that could be mined or otherwise dangerous.
"The robot is a great addition to our team," said Lt. Col. Ron Rose, who led Monday's mission in Qiqay, about 20 miles southeast of Khost in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are searching for remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda. "It is going to prove its worth."
A one-mile stretch of land along a dried-up riverbed here holds at least a dozen caves, some with roughly hewn entrances and shallow depths, others with almost perfectly arched entrances. All were potential hiding places.
Hermes traversed the entire length of two tunnels, coming out safely on the other side. It found no danger, ensuring that the area was safe for soldiers.
The weight of the robot - 42 pounds - is enough to set off any buried mines. Its height is enough to trip booby-trap wires at foot level. For any traps set higher, or for a general scan of the area, the robots rely on their cameras, which continually scope out their surroundings. Hermes, a prototype, can be fitted with up to 12 cameras.
After Hermes proved a cave was safe, soldiers entered, drawing maps and taking measurements to calculate the amount of explosives needed to blow up the cave so it could not be used as a hiding place.
Col. Bruce Jette, director of the robotics team, said the robots are a perfect way to increase the safety for soldiers - a great leap from the Vietnam War, when a lone soldier would be sent into a dark area with a rope tied around him to assess the danger.
"This is history," Jette said. "Nobody has ever used a robot in combat before."
Jette, deputy of the Objective Force Task Force, was asked in May by the U.S. Department of Defense to head the project, and brought the completed prototypes here a month ago. They have been tested by a few different military companies and will be left behind to assist U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Jette said the soldiers have seen the value of the robots and even suggested more uses for them, including as security monitors or listening posts.
The four, $40,000 prototypes - Hermes, Professor, Thing and Fester - can hold up to 12 cameras, a grenade launcher and a 12-gauge shotgun. The robots operate on a sensor system and by wireless desktop control. They are fitted with a Global Positioning System, and can see themselves and each other on a map, ensuring more efficient searches. They run on 2, 6-pound rechargeable batteries that run one hour each.
Jette returns Wednesday to the United States, and will put together an analysis of the robots and their effectiveness in the field.