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[infowar.de] USA Today 12.05.03: New Breed Of Robots Takes War To Next Level
May 12, 2003
New Breed Of Robots Takes War To Next Level
By Jon Swartz, USA Today
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. Sitting before a computer screen in a small
trailer, a flight operator leads a stealth jet on a bombing raid of a
simulated air defense system several thousand miles away.
Viewing the image of a jet 35,000 feet over a digitized battle map, the
operator locks on enemy targets and destroys them with laser-guided
missiles. A camera in the nose of the aircraft catches the action with
Is this a war game or a new video game?
It's the latest test of the X-45, an unmanned plane that offers a
not-too-distant glimpse of how the United States will eventually wage war.
"You could oversee a bombing mission overseas then break for dinner with
the family," says Roy Smith, an engineer at Boeing, which is developing the
Unmanned machines like the X-45 are being cooked up and tested in the
country's most advanced labs. Within 20 years, squadrons of unmanned planes
will swarm enemy sites like killer bees, launching missiles and avoiding
detection with sophisticated jamming devices. Self-programmed submarines
will replace dolphins to detect and disarm mines. Robotic mules the size of
pickups will haul ammunition, medical supplies and food. Drone ambulances
will load wounded soldiers and cart them to hospitals. Crablike robots will
crawl into buildings to sniff out chemical stashes.
The transition to mechanized weaponry is key to the military's
transformation from heavy ground forces to smaller human units fortified
with robotic weapons. The goal: to limit casualties.
"Why put a human in harm's way if you can send a robot?" says Maj. Neal
Vickrey of the U.S. Air Force Space Battlelab, created five years ago to
integrate civilian technology into military use.
Part of the lure is also efficiency: Non-human combatants are relatively
inexpensive, operational 24 hours a day and immune to biological
weapons.Many will evolve with advancements in satellites, sensors, power
supplies, wireless communications, digital imaging, software and chips.
"Robots are only as good as their surrounding technology," Boeing's Smith says.
Encouraged by the success of satellite-guided bombs and unmanned spy planes
in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military plans to spend
$10 billion between now and 2010 on unmanned vehicles such as the X-45. In
all, the Pentagon spends more than $100 billion a year developing and
The military's thirst for high-tech gadgetry has fomented a new breed of
defense contractors. Companies such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman and
Lockheed Martin that have built aircraft carriers and fighter jets are
expanding into electronics-systems design and software development. Boeing
is co-developing the X-45, which is heavily dependent on sophisticated
So far, unmanned craft have seen limited use in conflicts. PackBots,
dog-size robots armed with weapons and sensors, were used for
reconnaissance and mine-clearing missions in Afghanistan. The most advanced
unmanned craft Global Hawks and Predators floated above Iraq, snapping
digital images and beaming them back to command centers miles away.
But computerized combatants will get smarter and more aggressive, evolving
from the remote-controlled reconnaissance machines of today to
self-programmed robots that can navigate difficult terrain and engage in
combat, says Scott Myers, in charge of robotic development at General
Dynamics' Robotics Systems.
Pentagon officials acknowledge that automating the military is a work in
progress. And the investment is steep. Global Hawks cost $40 million each.
Shifting tasks from humans to robots has long been met with limited success.
"Robots cannot reproduce the complexity of the human brain," says Loren
Thompson of Lexington Institute, a non-profit think tank. "They react
poorly to unexpected circumstances, which is what war is all about."
Robots and the future of warfare
Robotic weaponry under development will eventually do many of the tasks the
Defense Department describes as "the dull, the dirty, and the dangerous."
USA TODAY's Jon Swartz and George Petras take a look at what is in the
works for sea, land and air:
Long-term Mine Reconnaissance System: Size: 20-feet long, 21-inch diameter,
*Launched from submarine torpedo tube, recovered underwater with sub's
*Searches pre-programmed area for mines, relays mine location by satellite.
*Standard search is 40 to 50 hours long.
Ariel underwater-legged vehicle: Size: 22 inches long, 45 inches wide,
including outriggers, Time: Within 10 years
*Modeled after crab.
*Designed to remove mines and underwater obstacles.
*Equally maneuverable, rightside-up or upside-down.
In the air
X-45C- unmanned combat air vehicle: Size: 39 feet long, 49-foot wingspan,
Time: Within 5 years
*Operated by remote control.
*Can be launched from aircraft carrier or land base.
*Carries precision-guided weapons.
On the ground
Robotic Infantry Support System: Size: About the size of a pickup truck,
Time: Within 10 years
*Unmanned vehicles would carry up to 2,000 pounds of medical supplies,
ammunition and food, reducing the strain on soldiers who carry up to 100
pounds of equipment and make them more mobile.
*Equipped with unmanned aerial and ground vehicles for scouting.
*Eventually, convoys of 100 unmanned vehicles could follow a soldier
driving a lead vehicle. The addition of weapons would allow machines to
return enemy fire. Through advances in chip technology, such robotic mules
will grow smarter, accelerating and seeking cover to evade enemy fire.
Valkyrie: Size: About half the size of a pickup truck, Time: Within 10 years
*Drone ambulance retrieves wounded in combat fields and transports them to
nearby medical facilities.
*Comes equipped with medical equipment, such as tourniquets and drugs.
*Eventually may carry weapons to return enemy fire. Remote doctors, using
robotic assistants on vehicle, could perform surgery.
Spinner: Size: 16 feet long, 8.5 feet wide, Time: Within 15 years
*Hybrid-electric unmanned ground combat vehicle can recover from flip overs.
*Armed with missiles and cannons.
*Mounted cameras to transmit video to commanders.
*Have chemical and biological sensors.
Latest battlefield gadgets often find new life back home
From the front line to store lines, technology first used in war has often
found its way to consumers.
Velcro, Jeeps and plastics, among other items, have become household staples.
Likewise, some of the high-tech tools of the Iraq war could also play a
role in homeland defense and eventually flow to the commercial market,
marketing experts say. Major areas to watch include:
Robots. The use of unmanned military vehicles, commonly called robots,
could fuel growth of household "assistants" and could seep into future
versions of wheelchairs and cars that automatically signal for turns or
swerve to avoid obstacles, experts say.
Vehicles with improved sensors could end up as harvesters and golf course
lawn mowers that perform menial work efficiently.
WorkHorse Technologies is developing robots the size of golf carts to
burrow into abandoned mines to map and survey terrain.
Law-enforcement officials, meanwhile, are discussing the use of unmanned
surveillance planes, such as the Global Hawk and Predator used in Iraq, to
patrol borders and high-security events such as the Super Bowl and Olympics.
Stronger bulletproof material. Spectra Shield, an ultra-lightweight
material developed by Honeywell that is used in body armor plates inserted
in bullet-resistant vests and helmets, is gaining wide commercial use.
Security-conscious airlines and automakers, among others, are using the
material which is 10 times stronger than steel in cockpit doors and car
door panels to protect against rifle fire. The material is also popular in
Night-vision goggles. Advanced infrared technology used by the military for
special operations will soon find its way into goggles for hunters,
campers, photographers and boaters. NewCon-Optik is developing monoculars
and binoculars, starting at $150, that dramatically improve images in pitch
darkness, says Arie Prilik, the company's vice president of technology.
Sensors. Digital images from high in the sky used to take photos and track
movements of enemy troops could be used to monitor traffic, tech analysts
say. The information could be relayed over wireless networks to smart cars,
which would notify drivers of bottlenecks or accidents via a text message
on a computer screen.
Webcam technology. The Web camera capabilities reporters use to send video
from laptops didn't exist two years ago. But with improvements in wireless
technology, the cameras will increasingly find their way into laptops and
other devices, such as cell phones and personal digital assistants. "Video
images could take the place of text messages in e-mail," says analyst
Jonathan Gaw of market researcher IDC.
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