Armed Robots Sidelined in Iraqi Fight
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The first three armed ground robots deployed onto a battlefield are stuck behind sandbags and are not patrolling Iraqi streets as its inventors envisioned, said a senior executive with its manufacturer, Foster-Miller Inc.
Last summer, three special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action systems (SWORDS) were shipped to Iraq after three years of development at the Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.
The robots carry M249 light machine guns, which are remotely controlled by a soldier through a terminal.
Senior Army leadership, however, was not comfortable with sending them out to do combat missions due to safety reasons, and they are now placed in fixed positions, said Robert Quinn, vice president of Talon operations at Foster-Miller.
“If you have a mobile weapons platform that can’t be mobile, and it becomes nothing more than a fixed position, then why not just put it on a tripod,” he told National Defense.
It seems to be a “chicken or the egg” situation for the Army, he said. The tactics, techniques and procedures for using armed ground robots have not been addressed.
But until there is an adequate number of SWORDS to train with, these issues can’t be worked out, he said.
Kevin Fahey, program executive officer for the Army’s ground combat systems, said technical concerns have halted the use of SWORDS. The turret moved on its own without a command being sent to it. There were no instances of the gun firing independently, nevertheless, “everybody lost confidence in it,” he told the RoboBusiness conference in Pittsburgh.
Because it was developed under an “urgent needs” request, the development was accelerated without the benefit of thorough engineering, he said.
Making sure the system works properly is crucial for the future of armed ground robots, he added. “If something goes wrong it may prevent us from fielding an armed robot for about 10 to 20 years because once you’ve done something that’s really bad, it’s almost impossible … to overcome that,” Fahey said.
The Army authorized the purchase of 80 additional robots under an urgent equipment request, but the office of assistant secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology has not sought funding to fill the order.
Proponents of the system have touted SWORDS as potentially life saving technology. The idea is to lessen the exposure of the soldier to enemy gunfire.
Detractors have questioned their vulnerability, claiming an enemy soldier could defeat it by sneaking up from behind with a baseball bat or by tossing a blanket over it. The first generation SWORDS cannot swivel around 360 degrees.
Ellen Purdy, director of the joint ground robotics enterprise, at the office of the undersecretary of defense, while not addressing the SWORDS program specifically, said there are “an awful lot of implications we are going to have to think about when it comes to an unmanned system that’s armed.”
Liability issues, their acceptance in partner countries and how they fit into the laws of armed conflict are among the issues that need to be addressed, she said.
Her office is working on a ground robots technology roadmap, which is due to be released this fall. It will take on some of these issues associated with armed robots. However, the roadmap won’t be getting into the nitty-gritty issues of tactics, techniques and procedures, she warned.
Michael Zecca, former SWORDS program manager, told National Defense last fall that the robots went through vigorous safety tests. That included installing a “kill switch” that would shut off the power if something went wrong.
Quinn said there was an assumption on the part of Army leadership that this switch wouldn’t work, which is why they were put in fixed positions.
Zecca did not respond to emails seeking further comment.
There is a SWORDS 2.0 version in development with 360-degree rotation, and nonlethal devices to protect the robots, Zecca said last year.
Fahey said if future versions are engineered correctly and tested thoroughly, “I think you will see [SWORDS] deployed over the next year or so.”
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