iRobot PackBot
Army wants 30% of force to be robotic by 2020

Science fiction fans raised on a steady diet of Terminator and Star Wars films have very specific ideas about what a robot on the battlefield would look like. The reality of military robots is that all of them require a human to operate, often with a joystick and a computer.

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 time.

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.

"It's okay. The scenarios aren't that clear. But it's good looking. [Steve Jobs] does good design, and [the iPad] is absolutely a good example of that." -- Bill Gates on the Apple iPad
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