As far as the military is concerned, anything from an autonomous vehicle to
a remote controlled observation drone could be considered a robot. The U.S.
Military is using robots at an ever increasing pace for all sorts of tasks. One
of the most common military robots is the iRobot PackBot. The PackBot can be
configured for different uses including bomb detection. Another war robot
called the SWORD can actually carry
weapons into battle, though the SWORD has not been deployed yet at this
A pair of researchers from Washington University in St. Louis -- Doug Few
and Bill Smart -- say that the military goal is to have approximately 30% of the
Army comprised of robots by 2020. Smart says, "When the military says
'robot' they mean everything from self-driving trucks up to what you would
conventionally think of as a robot. You would more accurately call them
autonomous systems rather than robots."
The researchers and other supporters of robots in the military point out
that all of the robots currently in service are teleoperated by people
remotely. The reason to keep people controlling the robots rather than making
the totally autonomous is so that the human operator has to make the decision
and analyze the situation before shots are fired. This is to prevent any
accidental shootings attributed to a robot and help eliminate the fear that robots
could commit war crimes.
Smart says, "It's a chain of command thing. You don't want to give
autonomy to a weapons delivery system. You want to have a human hit the button.
You don't want the robot to make the wrong decision. You want to have a human
to make all of the important decisions."
Few is also working on the relationship between the human operator and the
robot in an attempt to make controlling the robot more natural and easy. Being
able to control the robot easily and keep eyes on the environment in a war zone
is paramount to operator safety.
One method Few is working on to make controlling robots more natural is
integrating the Nintendo Wii motion controller into the operating system. This
allows the robot to be controlled by the operator without the need for a laptop
or screen and allows the soldier to operate the robot and still watch his
environment for the enemy.
Smart explains, "We forget that when we're controlling robots in the
lab it's really pretty safe and no one's trying to kill us. But if you are in a
war zone and you're hunched over a laptop, that's not a good place to be. You
want to be able to use your eyes in one place and use your hand to control the
robot without tying up all of your attention."
While viewing an iRobot PackBot destroyed in combat after defusing a bomb,
Few says he came to a realization. "When I stood there and looked at that PackBot,
I realized that if that robot hadn't been there, it would have been some
kid," said Few. Replacing the human in some of the most dangerous tasks on
the battlefield -- like defusing bombs -- is one of the best uses for military
robots in many eyes.