Robots Up in Arms

May 20, 2011
By Rachel Eisenhower

Three U.S. Army units-two active duty and one National Guard-are preparing to go to war with robots armed, for now, with nonlethal weapons. Additionally, the Army expects later this year to finish the requirements document for the Multi-Mission Unmanned Ground System, which will include an armed version capable of deploying with small tactical units, possibly as early as 2013.

While more than 2,000 unmanned ground systems have already proved critical to the fight against improvised explosive devices, armed systems will tackle a wider array of missions, including force protection and tactical deployments.

In this month's SIGNAL Magazine, Technology Editor George I. Seffers discusses the potential for this technology in his article, "Robots Arming for Combat Duty."

According to Don Sando, director of capabilities development and integration, U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, Georgia, the Army intends to arm the robots with weapons currently used by the units. The robots will be used primarily for fixed-site protection, but they also could flank the soldiers and extend the battlefield, says Sando. In addition, the systems could be put in front of units to engage with targets beyond where soldiers might be deployed, which can be beneficial for many reasons, he explains:

For the small tactical unit, the employment of armed robotic systems could potentially provide a couple of advantages-to extend the battlefield to a certain degree and to provide supporting fire that currently hast to be provided by soldiers who may or may not have to be exposed to do that.

However, the robots are not designed to act alone, says Sando. They will need to be paired with other sensors in their site-protection role, and they will be teamed with combat soldiers if their missions extend to battle. The unmanned ground systems need this support because they are surprisingly easy to counter when left alone, says Brig. Gen. Tom Fields, USA (Ret.), senior associate with Burdeshaw Associates Limited. Enemy soldiers can sneak up behind them and flip them over or cover them with blankets to obscure the cameras. In addition, Sando says weapons systems make them more top heavy and vulnerable on tough enemy terrain:

We cannot leave it unattended-just like a soldier on the battlefield.

Because of these limitations, Gen. Fields says future platoons of armed robots are unlikely, but the systems do have a place for specialized point security at critical sites. The true impact of armed robots on the battlefield remains to be seen, but the possibilities are limitless.

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