The Future Of Warfare – Robots

For centuries man has thought of new ways to wage wars. It seems that some of the most important inventions and discoveries in history were immediately, or eventually, employed in warfare. Whether it was the invention of a new metal alloy, the discovery of a new principle of physics or biology, or the development of a new technology, mankind seems to always figure out a way to employ these advances on the battlefield.

Robots Entering The Battlefield

While the battlefield has changed much over the centuries, including terrain and weaponry, one thing remains the same – people largely do the fighting. The battlefield of the near future will look a lot like the battlefield of today, but with some notable exceptions. One of the most notable changes coming to the battlefield of tomorrow will be the employment of robotic forces. Whether they be fighting forces, or used mainly to assist humans with dangerous and difficult assignments, robots will join the battlefield soon.

Robots have long been the dream of war strategists. They would seemingly allow military forces greater flexibility and advanced capabilities, all while keeping more humans out of harm’s way. The fact is that there are already some limited deployments of robots on current day battlefields, mostly track mounted remote-controlled robots which carry a camera to increase soldier’s field of view. They help soldiers see around corners by beaming a live feed from their cameras to a hand held video monitor. But, these robots are just the beginning. Though robotic fighting machines may be a good ways off, there have been numerous demonstrations of robotic “animals,” which will be able to assist soldiers on the battlefield.

Robotic Animals To The Rescue?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is one of the main defense agencies responsible for funding the development of new war technologies. The agency has released information on several of these robotic animals, including a so-called cheetah which has been clocked on a treadmill at running almost 30mph – faster than Usain Bolt. Another robotic animal – a mule – has been shown in video walking over various terrain, including hills, ice, and snow. While the exact nature of the deployment of these robots, if any, is still unknown, the mule has been rumored to be under consideration for carrying loads for soldiers – freeing them up for more important combat tasks.

Robotic Suits Increase Human Abilities

Robotic suits are likely to be the first step into humanized robotics on the battlefield. There have already been a number of videos released by research teams, which show humans wearing what amounts to an exoskeleton made of metal. Most of the systems use hydraulics for power, multiplying the wearer’s ability to lift weights. The problem with the suits is their cost and that they severely restrict maneuverability. Another concern is just how the suits would benefit the rank and file U.S. solder. It is easy to imagine a situation in which a soldier may have to lift or carry a heavy object, but the employment of exoskeleton suits in the near future is unlikely. Current technology comes nowhere close to being able to offer abilities like those seen in the Iron Man movies, and even if they did, a sufficient power source would be needed.

DARPA Grand Challenge

More likely will be an extension of the drone programs, to include not just flying aircraft, but also remote controlled cars, tanks, hummers, and other vehicles. In fact, DARPA issued a challenge to research teams and universities nearly a decade ago, called the DARPA Grand Challenge. The goal: to build a vehicle which would complete a natural obstacle course in the desert with no real time human input. This means that the car would not be driven, nor controlled remotely. The car was to be able to operate more or less autonomously. In 2007 the challenge was completed by 6 teams, Tartan Racing being the overall winner. This kind of technology has also been developed by Google, which announced that they have conducted extensive tests of their driverless car. The car was active on real U.S. highways and roads, with no special accommodation being made by other drivers in the vicinity. In fact, the other drivers didn’t even know that they were sharing the road with a “driverless” car. Google’s car did have a person in the driver’s seat, for safety reasons. According to the company, the driver rarely needed to intervene – the car drove itself.

With driverless vehicles comes a whole host of possibilities. Some scenarios could include vehicles with are programmed to drive autonomously into dangerous enemy territory for search and rescue missions. Vehicles could also be equipped with video and targeting equipment, and used for surveillance and targeting. Ultimately, it is the hope of the U.S. and other governments, to be able develop decision making software, which would allow driverless vehicles to make decisions on the fly, with little or no human input.

2012 Robotics Challenge

After the success of the Grand Challenge, DARPA has announced that 2012 will be the inaugural year of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. This will include the further development of humanoid robots, which will be able to carry out a variety of tasks in dangerous environments. The challenge will run for 27 months, with events in June 2013, December 2013 and December 2014. The first challenge is set to be virtual, with the two following challenges being live. The company Boston Dynamics will be the sole source of the robots.

Be Careful What You Wish For

We must keep in mind that, thought the United State is the world’s leader in robotic warfare technology, this does not secure our place in the long run. It has been rightly pointed out that the Chinese and Turks were the first to develop and use gunpowder for the battlefield, but these developments did not secure them permanent military dominance. There are many concerns which have been voiced about the use of robots on the battle field. One of the most compelling is that bringing robots to the battlefield will have long term and unintended consequences. The country that does it first may not necessarily reap the greatest long term benefit from the practice.

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