Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) actually date back several centuries, to Leonardo da Vinci’s self-propelled carts (apparently intended to move cargo, not people), but did not see their first significant use in combat until World War II, when Nazi Germany built some 7,000 Goliaths – wire-guided small rolling bombs used to attack Allied troops and armor.
The first Gulf War brought unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to public attention with the Pioneer, a simple reconnaissance aircraft that proved invaluable in locating Iraqi forces, and enabling ships and artillery batteries miles away to zero in on them with deadly accuracy.
By the time post-September 11 military operations got under way in Afghanistan and then Iraq, UAVs had advanced in both number and capability, including the ability to deliver weapons directly on target. But the second Gulf War also saw the arrival of a new breed of modern UGVs.
These initial robots were small platforms with cameras, operated remotely by soldiers or Marines up to a few hundred feet away. Their primary use was checking vehicles at checkpoints, allowing warfighters to identify potential car bombs without exposing themselves to danger. Ultimately, they were applied to the singular enemy weapon of Southwest Asia – the improvised explosive device (IED).
“Combat engineers are using small robots and light flails in road clearance efforts where they basically roll along a specific area of interest and ensure it is clear of IEDs or similar obstacles,” said Col. Jim Braden (USMC), Robotic Systems Joint Project Office (RSJPO) program manager. “The newer mission has moved over to ground maneuver forces, so if you are out in a Stryker or Marine LAV [light armored vehicle], you can use a small robot to look around the next corner, inside a building, check something that does not appear to be a natural part of the landscape.
“The next step we’re working involves significant logistics issues with both the Marine Corps and Army for offloading soldiers’ and Marines’ [backpacks], focused right now at the squad level, plus or minus, to enhance their mobility. In the longer range, we’re looking at some armed robots, currently in prototype. There are several initiatives, none robust enough to put into the hands of operational forces yet, but you might put an armed robot between a wounded soldier and the threat.”
Dr. Jim Overholt, director of RSJPO’s Joint Center for Robotics, is cautious to separate military reality from Hollywood fiction.
“We have to be very careful with the phrase ‘fully autonomous.’ In the most general sense, I don’t think we’re ever looking at that in terms of military robots. You won’t see robots being given orders and then going out and doing them,” he said.
“We can run autonomously for a period of time in getting from point A to point B, but the more autonomy we put into the system, the more we will have to address safety certification around humans. And if anything is preventing autonomy, it is making sure these systems will be safe around human beings.”
Indeed, despite the specter of Hollywood’s fictional Terminator raised by some critics, the robots currently fielded are at about the stage of Operation Desert Storm UAVs and commercial robotic carpet sweepers.
“Will it grow at the same level as UAVs? There are a lot of differences. UAVs are in an environment unlike ground, which is incredibly complex and, frankly, we don’t yet have the science and math to truly model it,” Overholt said. “Once we have that, we will see great advances.
“Right now we are being conservative in adding capabilities to help the warfighter, but I definitely see robots expanding. There were maybe 160 systems in 2004, growing to 6,000-plus in 2009. They save lives, carry out dull, dirty, and dangerous [3D] missions, and are a valuable tool to the warfighter. That is not going to stop.”