WASHINGTON _The Defense Department is rapidly expanding its army of robot warriors on land, air and sea in an effort to reduce American deaths and injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We want unmanned systems to go where we don't want to risk our precious soldiers," said Thomas Killion, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for research and technology.
Robots should take over many of the "dull, dirty and dangerous" tasks from humans in the war on terrorism, Killion told a conference of unmanned-system contractors in Washington this month.
Despite doubts about the cost and effectiveness of military robots, the Defense Department's new Quadrennial Defense Review, a strategic plan that's updated every four years, declares that 45 percent of the Air Force's future long-range bombers will be able to operate without humans aboard. No specific date was given.
One-third of the Army's combat ground vehicles are supposed to be unmanned by 2015. The Navy is under orders to acquire a pilotless plane that can take off and land on an aircraft carrier and refuel in midair. Robotic submarines also are planned.
The Pentagon is doubling the number of Predators and Global Hawks, unmanned surveillance aircraft that have been prowling the skies since before the Iraq war began.
While they may save lives, robots can be very expensive. Operating the Global Hawk costs as much as $10,000 per flight hour, many times higher than a piloted aircraft, according to Melody Avery, an advanced-aeronautics expert at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Unmanned aerial vehicles "are frequently oversold," Avery said in an e-mail message.
Still, those vehicles are being joined by a host of small robotic machines with such names as Talon, Raven, Shadow, Hunter, Pointer, Dragon Eye and Sand Dragon.
Miniature drones equipped with cameras and weighing only a few pounds can be launched by hand, bungee cord or catapult, from a rooftop or a moving truck.
A hopping gadget described by John Feddema, a robotics expert at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., can jump 50 feet in the air to place a communications system in a tree or on a rooftop. A "throwbot" can be tossed over a wall or into a building to avoid a deadly ambush.
The remote-controlled Packbot can sniff a roadside bomb 50 yards away, roll up and defuse or detonate it. A new, larger version, the Marcbot, pokes its video camera through doors or windows, looking for signs of danger.
Unfortunately, ground robots frequently break down, are damaged or get stuck in caves.
Nevertheless, soldiers "love" the robots, said Army Col. Edward Ward of the Pentagon's Robotics Systems Joint Project Office. "We're in the business of saving lives, and it works."
Marine Col. Terry Griffin, who also works in the Robotics Systems office, talked about a hypothetical situation in which soldiers were ordered to check out a multistory building in which insurgents might be lurking.
"Do you want to send your son or daughter in there? No, let's send a robot," Griffin said. "Three years ago, I had to beg people to try a robot," he said. "We don't have to beg anymore. Robots are here to stay."
According to Ward, the Army had 150 combat robots in 2004 and 2,400 at the end of 2005, and it will have 4,000 by the end of this year.
Robots also can help in other ways; for example, they can relieve soldiers of the heavy loads they must carry in combat. The Pentagon wants to get a soldier's fighting weight down from 100 pounds of equipment to 40 pounds, Killion said.
An unmanned truck—known as a MULE, an acronym for Multifunction Utility Logistics Equipment—can carry supplies, water and extra batteries. MULEs can run in convoys with or without human leaders.
The Army is developing armed ground vehicles that can maneuver along trails and across country at speeds of 25 mph or more without drivers.
The Air Force is acquiring more advanced unmanned aircraft to supplement its fleet of Predators and Global Hawks. "The Predator is not the end of the story," said Navy Capt. Ralph Alderson, the director of the Pentagon's Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program.
Next month, Boeing will deliver the first of its new X45 pilotless bombers, with a 50-foot wingspan and the ability to refuel in midair. Northrop Grumman is working on an X47 model that's designed for use on an aircraft carrier.
Not satisfied with the abilities of its current crop of robots, the Pentagon wants unmanned machines that can operate completely without human controllers. At present, most of these systems are controlled by radio signals or through long wires, known as a "robot-on-a-rope."
"The goal is a fully autonomous system by 2020," said Jeffrey Kotora, the manager of the Joint Robotics Program in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office. Killion called it "a system that has the smarts to operate like a manned system."
Robotic experts at the conference, which was sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said it would be extremely difficult to produce fully autonomous systems with what Kotora called "sensing and almost thinking ability."
Larry Jackel, the Robotics Initiatives director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said, "We've just scratched the surface."
Military robots can lead to civilian spinoffs, conference attendees noted.
The technology required for unmanned vehicles can be applied to cars that automatically follow highway lanes and avoid collisions, said David Thomas, the associate director for intelligent vehicle systems at the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command in Detroit.
The Army has a squat, dinner plate-sized robot that crawls under vehicles to check for bombs. The Homeland Security Department could use it to peer under passenger airplane seats or in overhead luggage bins, according to Feddema, the Sandia researcher.
Police and fire departments and disaster response teams increasingly are using robots.
"We know these things save lives," Griffin said. "We ain't going back."
For more information, go to www.acq.osd.mil/uas and click on "UAS Roadmap."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ROBOTS
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