Robots have already transformed bomb disposal from a lethal game of Russian roulette into a technical challenge executed from a safe distance. Hundreds of small "throwbots" are making the business of searching buildings less dangerous in Afghanistan. Armed robots are a logical extension of this trend, keeping soldiers away from danger by acting as remote weapons platforms or going ahead of human soldiers to draw fire or set off roadside bombs.
The idea is essentially the same as it was in 1982, when Grumman and Martin Marietta produced prototype Teleoperated Mobile Antiarmor Platforms (TMAP), 600-pound vehicles armed with antitank missiles, for the U.S. Army. TMAP allowed the operator to fire missiles remotely via a TV link from a mile away, keeping them well back from (presumably, Soviet) return fire. TMAP looked promising but was cancelled in 1987 after Congress raised concerns about armed robots.
Since those days, one robot after another has been terminated or sidelined. Concerns are often about safety or reliability, but other factors come into play as well. Crusher, for example, was a highly mobile, 13,000-pound six-wheeled vehicle riding on a suspension that could be raised 30 inches to clear obstacles. It was intended to be the basis for the Armed Robotic Vehicle, part of the ambitious Future Combat System program. But by 2009 the costs had ballooned, and the entire effort got the ax.
The closest robots came to combat was when an armed version of the Talon bomb-disposal robot, called SWORDS, deployed to Iraq in 2007. Three robots went but were never used. The reasons for this were never given, but Army project manager Kevin Fahey told PopMech at the time, "Once you've done something that's really bad, it can take 10 or 20 years to try it again," suggesting that the Army was wary of going ahead with using the robots until they were totally confident. One of the biggest concerns about SWORDS was that it made "uncommanded or unexpected movements." While this may suggest a machine out of control, the actual incidents were minor: one caused by loose wire and one by a faulty solder, neither of them on one of the bots in Iraq. The machines now have redundant wiring and double soldering.
Undeterred, the Pentagon and defense contractors are working on new armed bots that could soon take to the battlefield.
The direct successor to Talon/SWORDS is QinetiQ's Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS), a 350-pound tracked robot equipped with multiple cameras, a speaker, and a microphone for two-way communication. When words are not enough, MAARS has armament for "escalation of force" so it can use the minimum necessary force from its collection of weapons that includes a warning siren, a laser dazzler, less-lethal bean-bag or Nerf projectiles, an M240 machine-gun, and 40-mm grenades.
Jason Montano, QinetiQ North America's product manager for MAARS, emphasizes that MAARS is always under human control and does not operate autonomously—the weapons cannot be fired without operator control. He says that fears about being able to distinguish civilians from combatants are also misplaced: A combination of daylight and thermal-imaging cameras give very good situational awareness. And because the operator is not in imminent danger, there is less pressure when encountering a potential threat. "Because you are safe you don't have to make an instant decision," Montano says.
Montano says MAARS might be used as a force multiplier for forward-operating bases, patrolling a perimeter, or acting as a remote machine-gun turret. If there's trouble, MAARS can be sent into action much more rapidly than a quick-reaction force could be assembled. MAARS can be sitting ready, fully loaded and charged up, ready to power up and go out in 30 seconds. And it can be sent to investigate a situation that would be far too risky to send a soldier without backup.
The Army and Marine Corps both have a number of MAARS units—the original contract was for six machines, with plans for another 46, including SWORDS and MAARS, but it's not clear how many were delivered. Montano says the military is exploring "tactics, techniques, and procedures" and "concepts of operations"—in other words, the best way to use them. The Marine Corps carried out one such exercise using MAARS in California this spring, but there is no timeline for when they might be used in action.
Whereas MAARS is a purely remote-controlled machine, the Robotic Armed Maneuver Platform (RAMP), otherwise known as Wingman, is a semiautonomous machine designed to work alongside humans on the battlefield. The Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command describes RAMP as "a technology push initiative to give the U.S. Warfighter first exposure to a safe and reliable Armed Mobile Robot." In other words, the Army is looking for an easy transition to smooth over the public's longstanding aversion to fighting robots.
RAMP is based on Howe and Howe's Ripsaw, a Hummer-size unmanned vehicle that is remarkably agile despite weighing 4 tons. It accelerates from 0 to 50 mph in 5.5 seconds, thanks to a 6-liter diesel engine and a lightweight tubular chassis derived from Nascar race cars.
What really makes RAMP extraordinary is the software. A suite of sensors and software called SOURCE, developed by the Army, enables the vehicles to drive autonomously at 30 mph on the open road, and 6 mph in cluttered urban terrain, while avoiding vehicles, people, and animals. SOURCE can even read and obey road signs. With SOURCE, RAMP will be able to travel in convoys with other manned or unmanned vehicles and find its destination with minimal human supervision.
Like MAARS, though, RAMP's weaponry is completely under human control. The operator uses a Head Aimed Remote Viewer developed by Chatten Associates, a 3D display and tracker built into a helmet. As the operator turns his head, high-definition cameras on the RAMP turn correspondingly, providing an immersive experience.
All this risk reduction should make RAMP a safer bet to make it into service. And it has huge potential for development: Army documents also mention a future Heavy Wingman, a robot tank with a cannon, and heavy armor. Nevertheless, work on RAMP has now slowed to a crawl. Progress is only expected on the wireless extension kit and other technology that can be used elsewhere.
"The RAMP program remains in a strategic operational pause as ARDEC continues to evaluate how to position future technology development," says an Army spokesman. "We are seeking funds for an effort in 2015 that is based on our ongoing evaluation." Translation: The Army is building a case to get the money for this next year.
Developers see these robots as helpers working alongside humans, and the technology is more convincing than ever. But in a time of budget cuts, robots have few friends, and some detractors see them as competitors threatening to replace flesh-and-blood soldiers. It's worth noting that the impetus for armed drones came from the CIA rather than, say, the Air Force, where the preference has always been for manned planes. Armed robots have always had a hard time getting accepted, and that does not look as if it will change anytime soon.