Robots have stepped out of the science fiction pages and onto
the battlefield. Thousands are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan,
supporting military operations on land, at sea, and in the air.
Some robots cost as little as several thousand dollars each.
Controlled remotely by soldiers, sailors, and airmen, they perform
tasks such as disarming roadside bombs, scouting dangerous
territory, and patrolling the sky.
As technology advances, robots will become increasingly
autonomous of human supervision, providing new cutting-edge
national security applications that could give the U.S. military
significant competitive advantages. Robots on the battlefield
will not bring an age of "bloodless" push-button warfare nor
provide "silver-bullet" solutions to every combat challenge, but
they can offer U.S. forces tactical advantages for outfighting both
conventional (regular armed forces) and unconventional (e.g.,
terrorists and insurgents) enemies.
The U.S. government should continue prudent investments in
robotic technologies, particularly for autonomous operations--an
area of research not adequately supported by commercial research
and development. Congress can help by establishing a framework that
will facilitate national security research and development
programs and by addressing concerns about the risk to humans with
legislative guidelines for liability and safety issues in research,
development, and procurement.
When the Future Arrives
The challenge of imagining the future of war is often a question
of timing. Promising technologies are often derided or dismissed
simply because their proponents' imaginations outpace the capacity
of science and technology to deliver.
World War I offers a case in point. The nascent technologies
described by 19th century science fiction writers and military
futurists were not ready for prime time and incapable of breaking
the gridlock of attrition warfare. While H. G. Wells and Jules
Verne are often praised for their foresight in envisioning the
proliferation of weapons like tanks, airplanes, and
submarines, the machines that they described were little more than
fanciful, completely out of the reach of foreseeable technologies.
Military writers were more conservative in their appreciation of
how machines would change warfare, but even they missed the mark.
In World War I, the future arrived too fast, before new
technologies had matured to the point that they could reshape the
face of conflict. If World War I had been avoided and the great
powers had not tested these new technologies until the 1940s when
they were more mature, both science fiction writers and military
futurists might have been much closer to making more accurate
Timing may not be everything, but it can dramatically
affect the process of turning imaginative vision into reality. This
may turn out to be the case for robotics. The vision of robots in
combat, popularized in science fiction since the cliffhanger
movie serials of the 1930s, never came to fruition in the
succeeding decades. The Pentagon had little to show after decades
of research, leading the promise of robotics in battle to be
largely derided and dismissed as a failure of overly exuberant
Dismissing military robotics as a failed future vision may be
premature. The armed services' increasing expertise in robotic
technologies, the effectiveness of robots in recent military
operations, and promising new research developments suggest that
artificial warriors may yet prove to be the next big thing.
The Pentagon's New Weapons
After decades of military research and development, robotic
technologies have finally matured to where they present significant
national security applications. Their effectiveness is most
noticeable in environments that are ill-suited to manned
Robots have proven most efficient and cost-effective in
combat tasks involving the three Ds--dull, dirty, and dangerous.
Dull assignments are those that require routine functions such as
monitoring a bridge crossing site. Dirty jobs are performed in
harsh environmental conditions, such as searching contaminated
areas. Dangerous missions involve tasks in which humans could
suffer physical harm, such as disarming an improvised explosive
device (IED). Currently, the U.S. military employs three different
robotic platforms for three-D operations:
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.Unmanned aerial vehicles(UAVs)
have emerged as the most frequently employed robotic platform on
the battlefield. Ironically, the failure of numerous programs
during the Cold War initially earned them the reputation of
"'vampires' of military acquisition," "sucking" up research and
development dollars without delivering any practical utility.
That began to change when UAVs first proved their effectiveness
during the first Gulf War (1991) "when the low-tech, short-range
Pioneer [short-range reconnaissance drone resembling a large
model airplane]," as J. R. Wilson points out, "helped to identify
artillery and naval gun targets, detected high-speed Iraqi
patrol boats, and even became the first 'robot' to which enemy
Throughout the 1990s, all of the military services
developed new applications for UAVs. Many of the new capabilities
were battle-tested in combat operations in Bosnia, Kosovo,
Afghanistan, and Iraq. Today, over 700 types of UAVs support U.S.
military forces. The armed services employ about 3,000
individual UAVs in Iraq alone.
The Predator--a medium-altitude, long-endurance, remotely
piloted aircraft--stands out as the most notable UAV in military
service. Initially used for reconnaissance, the Predator has also
been armed with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and has been used
to conduct combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other UAVs
range from the hand-launched Raven, used by ground troops, to
Global Hawk, a high-altitude, long-range, long-endurance
platform with a wingspan as wide as a commercial airliner that can
conduct surveillance missions anywhere in the world.
UAVs are being used more heavily because of their increasing
capacity to loiter over the battlefield for a long time and provide
a persistent presence. For example, the Predator B can stay
airborne for a day or more. The current generation of UAVs can
track specific targets for extended periods and can attack the
target or relay information to ground troops. Insurgents in Iraq
have become so wary of UAVs that they are reluctant to loiter in
any open place for more than a few minutes. Both Americans and
their enemies now see UAVs as a ubiquitous presence on the
Unmanned Underwater Vehicles. The Navy is developing
unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) to hunt and destroy sea-based
mines. Remus, a three-foot-long robot that can detect mines
underwater, is being retrofitted with an explosive charge so
that it can attach itself to and detonate underwater bombs and
mines. Remus also carries a sensor payload that allows it to
identify entities in the surrounding waters.
The Navy has tested Remus in real missions, using the robot to
clear mines in the port of Um Qasr, Iraq, in 2003. Remus robots
searched nearly a square-mile area and removed a number of mines in
16 hours. Divers would have needed 21 days to complete the same
Unmanned Ground Vehicles. Unmanned ground vehicles have
played a critical role in combating IEDs, the deadliest weapon used
against U.S. troops in Iraq. Roadside bombs have accounted for more
than 70 percent of U.S. casualties. The Pentagon's Joint Robotics
Program, established in 1990 to oversee robotics technologies,
established a plan to acquire "small, man-portable robotics
systems" equipped with explosives ordnance disposal (EOD) tools
that would be "fielded as quickly as possible to assist EOD forces
in the mission to defeat IEDs."
Initially deployed to Afghanistan to search caves for weapons
caches, the first small unmanned ground vehicles (SUGVs) arrived in
Iraq in April 2004. One of the early SUGV models was the
PackBot, a 30-pound robot that is small enough to fit in a
backpack. It is also extraordinarily rugged. A PackBot can be
thrown from the second story of a building and still work. PackBot
has recently been equipped with a manipulator arm with a two-meter
reach and a camera that allows the operator to remotely identify
and disarm bombs.
Today, SUGVs are integral to ground operations. According to
press reports, the military has deployed "nearly 5,000 robots
in Iraq and Afghanistan, up from 150 in 2004…. Soldiers
use them to search caves and buildings for insurgents, detect
mines, and ferret out roadside bombs." By the end of 2005, robots
reportedly had rendered safe or exploded more than 1,000
In addition to their utility, SGUVS are relatively inexpensive
compared to other robots. Predators cost between $4.5 million and
$8.3 million each, UUVs about $5.5 million, and PackBots between
$80,000 and $150,000. This low cost has enabled rapid
procurement, deployment, and adoption of ground-based robots.
Empowering New Systems
Currently deployed robots are teleoperated, meaning that a human
must direct their every move. However, robotic technology is moving
toward more autonomous action. Autonomy will enable robots to
sense, react, and even make decisions without human intervention.
On the battlefield, these capabilities will transform robots
from adjunct assets to independent combat platforms that can ferry
supplies, search out and interpret intelligence for
soldiers, make critical decisions with the most up-to-date
information, guard roads and supplies, hunt enemy forces, and even
engage in combat.
To achieve autonomy, research is focusing on three core aspects:
sensors, cognition, and networking.
Sensing the Environment. Sensors allow robots to observe
the world around them. Many robot designs use sonar, laser range
finders, television cameras, and microphones. For example, the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Naval Research
Laboratory are conducting extensive research into map-creation by
robots to enable them to guide themselves. A NASA laboratory
is investigating the use of infrared sensors on a flexible
outer body, allowing the robot to sense objects in its path.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska are developing a system
to give a robot a sense of touch that equals that of the human
finger. These efforts are only a few of the
entire spectrum of projects being undertaken by government and
university research centers.
To encourage the development of self-guiding systems, the
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has established
the Grand Challenge, a competition for robotic vehicles. The
goal of the race is to identify technologies that will enable
robots to navigate complex terrain autonomously over a long
distance. In the first Grand Challenge in 2004, not a single team
completed the 150-mile course. The most prevalent difficulty was
the robots' inability to navigate around detected obstacles while
maintaining their GPS-derived locations. In the 2005 race,
participants were able to surmount this critical problem. Six
vehicles completed a 132-mile course. In November 2007, DARPA
sponsored a 60-mile contest in an urban environment.
Cognitive Action.To streamline robot-human interactions,
researchers must develop machines capable of reasoning like human
beings. Autonomous robots must be capable of
learning and making decisions. In dealing with humans, the
robot will need not only to reason, but also to have cognitive
skills, such as being able to follow an ambiguous order that
requires intuitively understanding what the command means.
Evolutionary robotics is a newly emerging field of robotic
design in which a machine system works out a solution and then
repeats the process until the robot determines the most efficient
process. The solution then guides the control system in operating
the robot's physical attributes, such as walking. Such innovations
may presage the deployment of autonomous robots.
To maintain a level of control over autonomous robots, the
military services are investigating "variable autonomy,"
combining aspects of autonomy and human control. The Naval
Research Lab is researching human control of robots through voice
commands and hand movements.
Network-Friendly. It is essential for robots to
communicate and work together with the surrounding humans. In
2001, the Pentagon released the Joint Architecture for Unmanned
Systems protocols to standardize communications software for
unmanned systems. With these standards, systems can be
configured to match a variety of human-machine
environments in which robots, soldiers, civilians, and enemy
combatants may share the same battlespace.
Developers of the Army's Future Combat Systems (FCS) are
using the Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems to develop
interoperable programming for FCS robotic platforms. Robots
will be operated under an umbrella of systems that will manage FCS,
including the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T).
Under WIN-T's Joint Tactical Radio and Ground Mobile Radio systems,
soldiers and robots will be able to communicate via software
networks that provide multichannel voice, data, imagery, and video
The Next Generation
Autonomous robots are closer to real combat capabilities.
The Army will soon field the Mobile Detection Assessment Response
System (MDARS), a semi-autonomous security-guard robot. This
nine-foot, 3,500-pound robot can travel up to 20 miles per hour
using inertial and satellite navigation and can scan the
surrounding environment with radar and infrared beams. Using
its on-board sensors, MDARS will able to conduct independent
patrol or sentry duty, avoiding obstacles and detecting
intruders up to 300 meters away.
The Army is also developing the semi-autonomous
Multifunctional Utility Logistics and Equipment (MULE)
vehicle, a six-wheeled, 20-foot robot that can autonomously
traverse rugged terrain, carrying 1,900 pounds of equipment.
MULEs will perform convoy operations and support ground assaults.
Currently, one-fourth of the planned systems for FCS will be
robotic, including both remotely piloted air and ground vehicles.
The Navy recently tested two UUVs as part of the Long Term Mine
Reconnaissance System. Submerged submarines launched and
recovered the vehicles through their torpedo tubes.
MANTA, a proposed underwater system, would detach itself from a
submarine's hull and be able to deploy torpedoes or small
UUVs. These remote robots and weapons could extend a submarine's
range into shallow waters that the boats cannot traverse.
In the air, prototypes for fully autonomous UAVs are being
developed. In August 2005, Boeing Corporation successfully
tested two X-45A unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). In these
tests, the two X-45As took off, planned a route, evaded threats,
and reached a designated target. One recent study concluded
that UCAVs offer significant potential for extended operations at
Congress and the Administration should continue to promote
the development of robotics. While the private sector is actively
researching the application of robotics to a wide range of
uses from building cars to sweeping floors, commercial research is
not sufficiently focused on national security needs to develop the
cutting-edge robotic applications that the military needs. Thus, in
the decade ahead, commercial off-the-shelf products are
unlikely to provide the Pentagon with dramatic new capabilities.
Congress should therefore encourage and support national security
Specifically, a few key initiatives would bolster the
development and utilization of robots.
- Interagency coordination. Currently, each military
service prefers separately managed programs geared to its
individual needs. However, the Government Accountability
Office (GAO) concluded that the military could save money and
resources by combining the services' 13 UAV programs. The GAO
cited the Fire Scout UAV program as an example of the potential of
interagency cooperation. The Army and Navy are pursuing common
components under the Navy contract, saving an estimated $200
million in research and development costs.
The Department of Defense should accelerate this type of
cooperation, promoting common configurations, harmonizing
performance requirements, and drawing on common testing,
evaluation, and support. Cooperation should extend to the
Department of Homeland Security, supporting the UAV
requirements of the Coast Guard and Customs and Border
- Continued funding. Congress should continue to fund
robotic research, development, and procurement across the
board. Their success on the battlefield merits the resources
necessary to meet the Pentagon's goal of replacing one-third of its
armed vehicles and weaponry with robots by 2015.
- Establishing a legislative framework. As autonomous
robots come closer to becoming reality, safety will be a major
issue. Robots, especially on the battlefield, should have
"safety-critical computing" to maintain human control and to ensure
they do not behave in unintended or dangerous ways.
Public policy needs to recognize these dangers but to address them
in a manner that does not unduly hold back research that could
bring dramatic new capabilities to the marketplace and further
national security. Congress can speed the development of autonomous
robotics by creating a legal framework in which research can
occur without unnecessary restraint. The framework should
include input from the Defense Department, the Department of
Homeland Security, and NASA.
A Window of Advantage
America's capability to seize and maintain a strategic
advantage in robotic national security applications could be
lost without sustained and focused commitment from the
Administration and Congress. Congress should provide adequate
funding, encourage increased coordination, and craft policies that
encourage prudent investment in robotic technology. Congress
can facilitate national security research and development programs
by establishing a framework that addresses concerns about the risk
to humans from autonomous robots.
James Jay Carafano,
Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom
Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research
Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage
Foundation. Andrew Gudgel is a freelance writer currently
residing in Maryland. Oliver L. Horn, a Research Assistant in the
Allison Center, assisted with this report.
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