We're used to hearing about robots in the military, but are the robots as well adapted to combat as we think?
Here are just a few of the robots assigned to the U.S. Army’s last combat brigade in Afghanistan: Tractor-size robots that trawl ahead of foot patrols, probing for buried bombs. Smaller ‘bots that help blow up the uncovered incendiary devices. Unmanned aerial vehicles — from tiny, hand-thrown models to a high-endurance version the size of a Cessna. Silent robot sentries that watch over sleeping U.S. troops.
The automaton warriors of the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, deployed to volatile Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan since December represent the highs and lows of more than a decade of military robot development.
Highs because they potentially save many lives — replacing people in some of the most dangerous tasks. Lows because many robots were designed specifically for the Iraq War but are now being used in Afghanistan — where the unique enemy and terrain sometimes makes them ineffective.
Some of the robots, however, have proved indispensable, even life-saving. Others work — but only when conditions are perfect. A few are total duds, locked away in storage containers while battle rages all around. As a group they offer a glimpse of the future of military robotics — as the Pentagon digests the final technological lessons of the Afghanistan war and prepares for the possible wars of the coming decades.
A Robot Menagerie
1st Brigade’s Bravo Company, 3-41 Infantry, based in Zari district in northern Kandahar, has access to probably the most diverse robotic arsenal of any military unit in the world. The ‘bots range from the most practical models to the least practical. The brigade commander, Captain Dennis Halleran, describes his team as “the most technologically and tactically proficient” of the brigade’s roughly 10 companies. Bravo’s arsenal of automatons includes:
- Two types of tracked Explosive ordnance disposal robots designed to neutralize insurgent bombs: the 100-pound Talon, produced by Foster-Miller, and the 25-pound Packbot from iRobot, another American company. Fielded in large numbers in Iraq, during the height of the war there, the remote-controlled Talon (list price $250,000) and Packbot (priced as low as $50,000) performed the most dangerous steps in finding and disabling insurgent bombs.They used built-in cameras to search for the explosives and then put small C4 charges on the enemy devices to detonate them safely.But these robots were designed for use in Iraq, which is largely flat and has relatively good roads. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is rugged, mountainous and has poorly developed infrastructure. The Talon and Packbot often struggle just to get from point A to point B. For that reason these once-crucial ‘bots now spend most of their time in storage.
- Hand-thrown Puma UAVs. AeroVironment’s 13-pound, GPS-guided spy plane is the latest in a line of small, unmanned aerial vehicles that, like the EOD robots, gained popularity during the Iraq War. But this drone has been largely sidelined in Afghanistan by bigger and more capable unmanned aerial vehicles and other surveillance technology.Now that the Army depends on larger, more capable Predator and Shadow UAVs and an expanding network of tower- and balloon-mounted surveillance cameras, many of these $400,000 Pumas sit in storage rooms with the bomb-’bots. In fact, while preparing to ship surplus supplies back to the United States in April, Bravo Company soldiers discovered at least three Pumas that they didn’t know they had, packed away in special crates.
- The Dok-ing, developed by a Croatian company, screens for explosive mines.A tractor-size vehicle that travels via tank-like treads and weighs roughly five tons, the Dok-ing is steered by a soldier walking 100 feet or more behind it, carrying a radio remote.It can be fitted with a variety of front attachments, including wheel-like rollers for setting off pressure-activated bombs. Two fittings — a loose bundle of chains called a “flail” and a bulldozer blade — are used to dig up buried explosives. Compared to Bravo Company’s other ground robots, this new Dok-ing “is pretty useful,” Halleran says. On dangerous patrols along dirt roads, Bravo Company soldiers line up behind the Dok-ing, trusting the robot to clear a safe path.
- The Kraken.A complex suite of mostly autonomous tower-mounted cameras, radars and sound sensors connected to a pair of remote-controlled guns, the Kraken — which the Army spent $30 million developing since 2011 — is a stationary system meant to defend military outposts from insurgent attacks. Bravo Company has the first, and so far only, Kraken in Afghanistan.The weapon is controlled by two soldiers, sitting at laptops in the company operations center. They aim the remote guns and monitor the sensors as the robot detects people and vehicles passing the base. “You can tell it what to track and what not to,” Sgt. Nicholas Pensivy says of the Kraken. So far the Army seems pleased with its new robotic base-defender and could produce more copies.
Winners and Losers
It is not surprising to Peter W. Singer, a robotics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, that some of Bravo Company’s robots have been shelved while others thrive. “There is a pretty broad distance between the advancement of the prototypes in the labs and the systems in the field,” he says. Put to the test, some robots work — and others don’t.
Singer connects some ‘bots’ reversals of fortune to the tactical shift of U.S. forces from Iraq to Afghanistan. “Soldiers in Afghanistan are now getting robots that were originally bought in response to user experience in Iraq,” Singer says, “… and Iraq scenarios certainly aren’t the same. For one, Iraq’s flat terrain was easy for the Talon and Packbot bomb-hunting robots to navigate, but Afghanistan’s mountains and fields are impassable to most autonomous machines.”
Patrick Lin, a professor of ethics and emerging sciences at California Polytechnic State University who specializes in robotics, says the Army is also discovering that some tasks are best left to people.
“A lot of robotic work today,” Lin says, “is performed slower than it would be by humans.”
Explosive ordnance disposal, for example. “Today,” Lin explains, “it’s easier to defuse bombs the old-fashioned way, even if it’s more dangerous.”
It is more expedient for human bomb techs to search for and dismantle insurgent IEDs by hand, rather than spend hours trying to use a robot that could be thwarted by the terrain. But that efficiency comes with risk: defusing bombs by hand exposes human beings to accidental blasts.
But Singer cautions it’s too soon to write off robots — even for tasks where today’s ‘bots are only marginally practical. New tactics and technology could produce better and more useful automatons as the military shifts its focus to other potential conflicts. As part of its increasing emphasis on deterrence in the Pacific, the Navy is working on a radar-evading, jet-powered drone warplane that can launch from aircraft carriers and need not compete with systems already in use in Afghanistan.
Even after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, when it comes to military robots “these are very much the early years,” Singer says.