Former Army General Continues to Push for More Ground Robots
As a war commander in Iraq, he experienced firsthand how the technology could save lives. One hundred fifty-three of the soldiers under his command died, and 800 were seriously wounded. Many of these casualties could have been prevented if the right robotic systems had been in place, he had said many times before his retirement last year.
As the holder of a Master's degree in robotics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his credibility on the topic was more than the typical Army general.
Now retired, Lynch has stated his intentions to remain a strong advocate for the technology. He has been named the executive director of the Automation Robotics and Research Institute at the University of Texas at Arlington. He sits on the board of directors of robot manufacturers r2 and QinetiQ North America as well as the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
"I am going to do this until the day I die because is that darn important," he said at the AUVSI conference here. Lynch drew a large crowd at a side session Aug. 8. He promised the audience that he would speak candidly. He was known for being blunt when he was in uniform.
"If you're not fielding, you're failing," he said. Many of the life-saving robotic technologies are available now and ready to be sent into battle zones. But the slow acquisition process is preventing them from making it there.
The problem is threefold: The "troublesome" acquisition process; a lack of clearly defined user requirements; and the lack of an overall strategy.
"In the absence of a strategy, every important idea, becomes the idea," he said. The military starts chasing after myriad goals and nothing gets accomplished.
As for requirements, "Not even the users know precisely what they need," he said.
What they need in terms of robotics are persistent stare, logistics, perimeter security and route clearance, he said.
A robot that can stay in a fixed position and keep a watch on hot spots are preferable to unmanned aerial vehicles that can only loiter for a few hours per day. When he commanded the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq in 2007, he knew there were certain areas where insurgents repeatedly returned to to plant roadside bombs. A 24-hour watch capability would be able to catch them in the act.
As far as logistics, he maintained that the technology that would allow driverless truck to deliver supplies is mature and ready to be fielded. In fact, it has been so for the past 15 years in his estimation. Many of the troops under his command died as a result of roadside bombs while traveling in convoys, he said.
Base security is another field where robots could thrive, he said. Lynch's final assignment before retirement was commanding general of the Army Installation Management Command. He said $1 billion is spent every year on guarding bases. Many of these tasks can be performed by robots, and in the case of forward operating bases, they could patrol "beyond the wire" more safely than soldiers.
Route clearance remains one of the most dangerous tasks ground troops must perform, and can be mostly done by machine, he said.
One item not on his list was armed ground robots. When asked, he said his support for mechanized soldiers has not wavered. He has advocated for them since leaving MIT in 1985, he said.
"I lost a lot of youngsters in combat to snipers, and the only way I could fight back against a sniper is to put people in range of the sniper to shoot back," he said. An armed robot could do the same job without exposing soldiers to danger.
"I would give whatever I could give to get unmanned ground systems with weapon capabilities on the battlefield as soon as possible," he said.
At his new job at the research center, he intends to focus on rapid prototyping, and technologies that can be spun off within a few years rather than long-term basic research. He is keenly interested in assistive robotics -- machines that can help the elderly or handicapped.
"How do we use unmanned systems technology to improve the lives of people with disabilities?" he asked. For example, seeing eye dogs for the blind could be replaced with seeing eye robots. He encouraged audience members to take a look at this field.
"I do worry that folks are putting all their eggs in the DoD basket and over time, that is going to be risky business," he said. The military is good at articulating today's requirements, but not very good at spelling out tomorrow's needs, he said.
"Clearly, that is not working, because the user doesn't understand the technology and ultimately they can't articulate tomorrow's requirements," he said. If the users of robotics had a better grasp of what was close to being developed, industry and research institutions could pull their resources together and advance the technology.