If you’re anything like me, you grew up on Transformers, or maybe Gundam Wing; big battling robots that carved swaths of destruction wherever they went. While we’re not quite there yet, the military has been pouring a lot of money into robots, and the results might surprise you. The military has been pouring a lot of money into robots, and the results might surprise you. Let’s see what happens when the military gets into the robot game.
(It’s been a while since I’ve talked about robots, and the last time I did I was talking about robots substantially more gentle)
What happens when the military gets into the robot game? Let’s start with the unobjectionable.
Robots, as it turns out, are pretty good firefighters. The Navy has conscripted this cute little guy to fight fires on its ships. Impressively, however, this robot is designed to interact with the crew too; it’s not just a mechanical looking robot, it’s nearly a crew member in itself. When we talk about robots saving lives in the military, we usually think of battlefield applications. But here, robots are being leveraged to do another dangerous job; one that could easily be transitioned to the private sector without much hassle once the kinks are worked out. I’m not sure whether it’s good or bad that it looks like it’s right out of iRobot. Field (ship?) testing is expected to begin in about a year.
Robots are also taking the lead in the hunt for mines. The Navy has traditionally used divers or dolphins to search the hulls of its ships for mines, but now a little yellow robot will be guarding the underbellies of the Navy’s most expensive craft and detecting mines that can damage or outright sink these vessels. These robots need to cover the ship in two passes. The first uses sonar to map out the structure of the ship at about 10 meters, and the second uses a complicated algorithm to scan various points on the ship for even tiny mines. Though the robots are still in the testing phase, if implemented they will free up crew members and potentially be able to provide round-the-clock mine detection without endangering human or dolphin lives.
iRobot, on the other hand, is more of an all-purpose robot. With an arm that can do everything from break windows to fire off debris-clearing explosives, it’s designed to be a general purpose helper. iRobot straddles the line between assistance robots like those above and the more dangerous types I’ll talk about in a minute because it -can- be weaponized. On the other hand, it’s also one of the first robots to have transitioned to the private sector; it assisted those exploring the Fukushima power plant after the melt down last year.
On the ground-fighting side of things, the Marines are testing out Alpha-Dog, a robotic pack mule. Much to the delight of Marines everywhere, Alpha-Dog can be loaded up with up to 400 pounds of additional gear, ammo, food and water. While no one I know would say that Marines can’t hump that through the forest, most folks I know (including Marines) agree that they probably don’t want to. Alpha-Dog can support a small squad of soldiers, and aside from just carrying their gear (something the Army considers vitally important,) Alpha-Dog also serves as a mobile recharging station for radios and the rest of the electronic devices that are becoming increasingly important to war fighters. Even better, Alpha Dog is programmed to follow people without someone needing to drive it via joystick; it uses camera sensors to distinguish between humans and objects (though it’s unclear whether A-D has any way to distinguish between friendly and unfriendly humans – it could be bad if he strolls over to the enemy’s side and starts helping them out.)
Much like their biological counterparts, the cat vs. dog war exists for robots too. While Alpha-Dog is all strength and muscle, DARPA’s new robotic Cheetah is grace and speed. Maxing out at nearly 29 miles per hour, Cheetah can outrun the fastest Olympic athletes and never gets tired. The testing will continue next year with an untethered Wildcat (which I can’t say without John Gruden’s voice in my head; must be NFL time again) prototype. I’m a little curious exactly what Wildcat will eventually be used for. Even if Boston Dynamics can quiet it down, even the fastest black-ops squad isn’t going to run at a full-out sprint for any appreciable length of time (and certainly not at Olympic levels.) Maybe Wildcat can provide support for soldiers in vehicles. Or, maybe all the anime and sci-fi I’ve watched could come true and packs of these bots could silently stalk their prey, chasing down enemy soldiers with frightening efficiency and (wirelessly enhanced) pack tactics. See the Starcraft Predators for an example.
To ensure that the innovation continues, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding a contest for all purpose robots, and when DARPA says “all-purpose” they aren’t joking. Check out SingularityHub’s description of the DARPA challenge:
“What DARPA wants to see is a robot that has human-like “mobility and manipulation” abilities. At a disaster scene robots will have to make use of the same machinery and tools that human rescue teams have to use. The different stages of the challenge are meant to simulate an emergency response to a natural or manmade disaster. The robot will enter an open-frame vehicle like a John Deere Gator or Polaris Ranger, turn it on, and drive it – steering, throttle, brakes and all – to the disaster scene. Once it’s pulled up to the pile of rubble, it will exit the vehicle and climb over the sloped terrain littered with loose rocks, trees, ditches, and other obstacles it has to negotiate or avoid. Eventually the robot will reach an entryway blocked with debris that it will have to remove. Once the debris is cleared, it has to operate a door handle and push the door open. Inside, it will have to climb a ladder to reach a catwalk.
After crossing the catwalk it will reach a concrete panel or a framed wall that it has to bust through using something like an electric hammer or chisel. Waiting for it on the other side of the panel will be a series of pipes, only one of which will be leaking. The robot has to spot the smoke or hear the hissing sound to locate the faulty pipe and then close the pipe’s turn valve. Lastly, the rescue robot’s day will end after locating and replacing a cooling pump.”
Pretty impressive stuff for a robot. In addition to the robots listed above, Boston Dynamic’s Petman may make an appearance. Petman has already gotten off the treadmill and up stairs, and seems to otherwise provide the base for the sort of challenge DARPA is hosting.
Still, a number of improvements need to be made, and to say the challenge is hard is something of an understatement. Not that DARPA is afraid of extreme challenges; see the former director giving a TED talk below about robots and other amazing projects DARPA is working on:
All these support role robots are amazing, but what the military really does well is make things that go Boom. DARPA is, after all, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. So where are we with war fighting robots?
First, it’s important to note that already 30% of all military aircraft are drones. Some of these are surveillance craft. Others are armed strike fighters. Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) turn out to be a better investment than manned vehicles, but also carry some risks that the article linked discusses well. With all computers, there is the potential to be hacked; so we need to integrate better data encryption. Likewise, there may be issues related to human elements in integrating with machines, such as the potential desensitization of those controlling the robots.
Of course, it may not be necessary for humans to control the robots at all. While UAVs occasionally have strike capabilities, the new X-47B robotic fighter plane is truly autonomous. It’s a stealth fighter, designed to slip in and out quietly and without the need for human intervention. Although they can already take off from an aircraft carrier anywhere on the sea, in a couple of years (2014) it will be entering testing for aerial refueling, allowing it to stay aloft potentially indefinitely. With enough fuel and support, these fighter planes could continuously circle not just the country for defense, but combat zones for support and other areas for surveillance.
Not all the combat robots are aerial, however. SingularityHub reports that we’ve sent dozens of underwater drones to the waters of Iran as well. We’ve long controlled the submarine side of ocean superiority, but with unmanned underwater drones (cleverly named SeaFox, to which I desperately want to make a barrel roll joke) swaths of mines can be cleared to make way for our ships. It seems like we ought to be able to build a disposable unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV?) for cheaper than $100k though. More impressive than the SeaFox itself, however, is the synthesis of mechanical ability that is likely to emerge. If we can build unmanned stealth fighter planes, unmanned stealth submarines can’t be far behind. And then we have autonomous, refueling submarines that need no crew but carry a full payload. And -that- is superiority.
With air and sea covered, land is the only place left to go (except space, I suppose, but we’re not there quite yet.) DARPA has that covered too. Until land fighting robots are themselves autonomous (and Skynet fully awakens), DARPA is researching Avatar technology. Yes, like the film.
The idea is that humans will be able to telepresence into robots, controlling them through complicated VR technology to enable the best of both worlds; human accountability with robotic durability and the resulting lessening of casualties. This is roughly where aerial drones were ten years ago, though of course the more immersive DARPA can make the experience, the better.
When we’re talking ground superiority, however, aren’t we really talking walking tanks? And for that, Japan has its bases covered. It’s unsurprising that the country responsible for the Gundam anime has created a real life Gundam. This 13 foot, four ton mech is, for the moment, relatively lightly armed with what look like a pair of mini-guns on each hand (they fire BBs) and water-bottle launchers. For style, it can be controlled via cell phone like some sort of James Bond fanfic. A human can also crawl in and control it if needed. So, while there aren’t rail guns, rocket boosters, or light swords yet, it seems pretty clear that the base has arrived. Check out the video below, and behold the future:
One thing is for certain; military superiority and robotic advancement are going to go hand in hand for the foreseeable future.