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Pentagon works to increase its army of robots Print
Pentagon works to increase its army of robots

The Pentagon has drafted plans to quickly increase the use of robots that will take over the 'dull, dirty and dangerous' tasks soldiers perform.
BY ROBERT S. BOYD

WASHINGTON - The Defense Department is rapidly expanding its army of robot warriors on land, air and sea in an effort to reduce American deaths and injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.

''We want unmanned systems to go where we don't want to risk our precious soldiers,'' said Thomas Killion, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for research and technology.

Robots should take over many of the ''dull, dirty and dangerous'' tasks from humans in the war on terrorism, Killion told a conference of unmanned-system contractors in Washington last week.

Despite doubts about the cost and effectiveness of military robots, the Defense Department's new Quadrennial Defense Review, a strategic plan that's updated every four years, declares that 45 percent of the Air Force's future long-range bombers will be able to operate without humans aboard. No specific date was given.

One-third of the Army's combat ground vehicles are supposed to be unmanned by 2015. The Navy is under orders to acquire a pilotless plane that can take off and land on an aircraft carrier and refuel in midair. Robotic submarines also are planned.

The Pentagon is doubling the number of Predators and Global Hawks, unmanned surveillance aircraft that have been prowling the skies since before the Iraq war began.

While they may save lives, robots can be very expensive. Operating the Global Hawk costs as much as $100,000 per flight hour, many times higher than a piloted aircraft, according to Melody Avery, an advanced-aeronautics expert at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Still, those vehicles are being joined by a host of small robotic machines with such names as Talon, Raven, Shadow and Hunter.

Miniature drones equipped with cameras and weighing a few pounds can be launched by hand, bungee cord or catapult, from a rooftop or a moving truck.

A ''throwbot'' can be tossed over a wall or into a building to avoid a deadly ambush. The remote-controlled Pacbot can sniff a roadside bomb 50 yards away, roll up and defuse or detonate it. A new, larger version, the Marcbot, pokes its video camera through doors or windows, looking for signs of danger.

Marine Col. Terry Griffin, who works in the Robotics Systems office, talked about a hypothetical situation in which soldiers were ordered to check out a multistory building in which insurgents might be lurking.

''Three years ago, I had to beg people to try a robot,'' Griffin said. ``We don't have to beg anymore. Robots are here to stay.''

According to Army Col. Edward Ward, the Army had 150 combat robots in 2004 and 2,400 at the end of 2005, and it will have 4,000 by the end of this year.

 
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