Battlefield Robotics: A New "Leash" on Unmanned Life

September 13, 2010
By Beverly Schaeffer

It's nice when Fido obeys commands, but isn't it even better when he instinctively anticipates those directives? Apply this concept to unmanned systems-robotics to be exact-and the warfighter has a more foolproof companion by his side on the battlefield. That's the idea driving the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance (CTA) to advance the state of the art in unmanned technologies and move them more quickly into theater. Robots will eschew remote-control guidance, relying on programming that gives them autonomy via artificial intelligence. In this month's issue of SIGNAL Magazine, Technology Editor George I. Seffers goes for a walk down technology lane in his article, "Robots Hunt for New Role as Man's Best Friend on Battlefield." Once the advances reach the field, soldiers and robots will collaborate as partners, with shared situational awareness, understanding and common ground. This involves the mutual ability to understand soldiers' intent and then execute that intent. The key, CTA researchers say, is programming in the ability to "perceive." It's a daunting challenge to make machines do things that come naturally to humans and animals, like shifting their gait when going from flat to hilly terrain, climbing stairs or intuitively understanding other team members' needs. Leading the pack in this area has been CTA member Boston Dynamics, which developed BigDog, the famed heavy-duty, four-legged robot beast that mimics canine movements. DARPA is funding Boston Dynamics to leverage BigDog technology into the Legged Squad Support System, which is expected to carry up to 400 pounds of gear and enough fuel for longer-term missions. Believe it or not, soldiers have come to trust existing robotic systems, because they've already seen them in action-detecting, removing and safely detonating WMDs. Without requiring remote-controlled micromanagement, robots will perform even more intricate tasks and continue to remove humans that much further from harm's way. This bodes well for continued research, development and fielding of these autonomous beings. The notion of robots as trusted companions on the battlefield is no longer limited to the scope of science fiction or TV adventure. With the U.S. Army's Robotics Collaborative Technology Alliance and its members forging ahead on autonomous technologies, warfighters may just very well have their own "Lassie" to save the day. What more can be done to enhance robotic artificial intelligence to benefit the troops? Share you ideas here.

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