Future of Armed Ground Robots in Combat Still Debated

By Stew Magnuson

A QinetiQ modular advanced armed robotic system fires during a demonstration at Fort Benning, Ga., in 2010.

The Smithsonian Institution recently acquired a special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system, or SWORDS, robot for its collection. The National Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Ga., now has one as well, according to an industry executive.

In 2005, the SWORDS “mechanized soldier” became the first armed ground robot to see action on a battlefield, which apparently sparked the interest of museum curators.

The question now is whether armed ground robots will more often be seen on battlefields or on display at these institutions.

The debate over gun-toting robots and if they have a place in operations is still being discussed in the military, Lt. Col. Stuart Hatfield, soldier systems and unmanned ground systems branch chief, Army G-8, said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington, D.C.

“There is a lot of thought, but it’s waiting for technology to catch up,” he said.

One of the main concerns is collateral damage, he said. If an armed remotely piloted aircraft shoots a Hellfire missile from above, and the operator misses the target, the warhead strikes the ground. If a robot firing parallel to the ground misses, the bullet keeps going.

The projectile can go far beyond the sensor systems that are mounted on the robot. A 7.62 mm machine gun’s tracers go about 800 meters, but the bullet goes much farther, Hatfield said during a panel discussion.

“You don’t want to miss the target that you clearly identified, and hit something that you don’t intend beyond that, whether it be a civilian or anything else that and cause collateral damage,” he added.

There is agreement in the military that they will not shoot autonomously. “Department of Defense policy is that there will always be a man in the [decision] loop when applying deadly force. Period,” Hatfield said.

Bill Powers, research fellow at the Potomac Institute, and former deputy director of the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned in Quantico, Va., said there are indeed active discussions and research into armed ground robots within the Marine Corps.

“Most Marines or soldiers don’t want to start shooting out there randomly without having some person in the loop, making the decision that it should be firing at whatever it is out there,” he said.

Hatfield pointed out that there are already remotely operated weapon stations inside ground combat vehicles. The guns are fired from within the cab.

“The question is: how far do we stretch that remoteness?” he asked.

SWORDS was never deployed as envisioned. They carried M249 light machine guns, but were placed in fixed locations, and did not move, according to reports in 2008. Operational concepts would have had them going around buildings to shoot at snipers or other enemy combatants, without exposing soldiers to deadly fire. However, senior military officials at the time did not feel comfortable using them in that manner, and they were placed behind sandbags.

Charles E. Dean, director of business development at QinetiQ North America’s unmanned systems group, said perimeter defense was an important mission, and despite press reports claiming that SWORDS was only briefly in Iraq, the robots served there for six years. Reports from combatant commanders passed on to him said they had saved lives.

“They performed a combat role. There is nothing wrong with serving the protection of a site,” he said.

SWORDS was based on Foster-Miller’s Talon robotic system and developed at Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.

QinetiQ, which has since acquired Foster-Miller, is still actively pursuing the armed robot business. It brought its follow-on to SWORDS, the modular advanced armed robotic system (MAARS), to the conference to display.

“The U.S. military’s interest in armed robots has not waned. It is not lukewarm. It is actually increasing over time,” Dean told National Defense.

The Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning is asking for a demonstration of MAARS this fall, and the Marine Corps continues to investigate the possibility of employing it as well, he said.

Topics: Robotics, Armed Robots, Unmanned Ground Vehicles

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