Meet the R-Gator, an unmanned, six-wheeled vehicle that can be programmed to follow soldiers around the battlefield like a mechanical pooch, using laser guidance to avoid obstacles. It can also perform unmanned patrols, carry soldiers’ backpacks and be upgraded to dispose of unexploded bombs.
Plans for the R-Gator were unveiled this week at a military engineering conference in Orlando, Florida, along with blueprints and prototypes of several other next-generation battlefield robots.
Some of the latest machines could report for duty in Iraq as early as next year, in a bid to reduce American casualties. “These robots have no fear,” John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an online military research firm in Virginia, said. “They can advance into enemy fire in a way that human soldiers will not.
“What’s more, these robots don’t need retirement benefits, they don’t have to be paid a re-enlistment bonus and they can be boxed up and warehoused between wars.
They also, of course, don’t have loved ones who miss them and mourn them.”
The manufacturers of the machines, however, play down the notion that the new war machines will have any Terminator-style autonomy.
“They are simply an extension of the soldier,” said Bill Quinn, a spokesman for Foster-Miller, which makes the Talon, a 2ft 6in robot that moves using caterpillar treads and wields an M249 machinegun or a Barrett 50- calibre rifle. “The soldiers on the ground say it gives shooting around corners an entirely new meaning. Instead of just wildly firing, you can send the robot out to see, without fear of injury.”
More than a hundred of the unarmed, previous-generation Talons are already being used in Iraq and Afghanistan. In one case, a Talon in Iraq fell off the roof of a Humvee into a river. The soldiers used the robot’s remote control -along with its all-terrain treads, which can climb stairs, manoeuvre over rock piles, or plough through surf -to drive it out of the water. The Talon can even pick itself up if it falls over.
By next spring, next-generation Talons will be fitted with a remote-controlled, camera-equipped and shock-resistant tripod, on which a gun can be mounted. The first four prototypes of the armed Talon, which are being deployed with the US Army’s Stryker brigade, cost $ 230,000 (£119,000) each.
If they are mass-produced, the price could come down to nearer $ 100,000. The robot is tele-operated, meaning that its operator can see what the robot sees via four cameras. It can be operated from half a mile away in urban areas, or a mile in the open desert, using a briefcase-sized controller. Like any other soldier, the Talon can also be fitted with night- vision goggles.
The first requests for battlefield robots came in April this year, when the Pentagon ordered 163 unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), to protect American soldiers from roadside bombs and other “improvised explosive devices” being planted by insurgents in Iraq.
Five different types of robot were ordered: the Talon; the Vanguard, produced by a Canadian company of the same name; the PackBot, made by iRobot; the Matilda, produced by Mesa Associates; and Mini Andros II, a product of Remotec, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary. These robots will soon be replaced, however, by their more deadly successors. The R-Gator, for example, which will cost about $ 250,000 to build, is the successor to the manned M-Gator, often described as a"military golf cart” for moving casualties and transporting supplies. It is being made by John Deere, the tractor company, and iRobot, which makes robotic Roomba vacuum cleaners.
Mr Pike is concerned that military technology is moving faster than many people realise. “You really can imagine these robots replacing infantry on the battlefield,” he said. “If you were of the opinion that America was a rogue superpower based on the military policy of today -well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
Copyright 2004 Times Newspapers Limited
Copyright © 2002 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.