The men watched helplessly as the robot lifted its mechanical arm, aimed its weapon, and unleashed a stream of white hot metal upon their vulnerable human bodies. But this isn't a scene in a 1950s sci-fi story. It's a possible scenario involving one of the U.S. Army's latest combat systems.
Last June, the Army approved Talon SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Direct-action System), defense contractor Foster Miller's gunslinging mobile robot. Designed for armed reconnaissance duty, Talon SWORDS kind of looks like a Mars rover (Fig. 1). But the lethal fighting machine packs a formidable arsenal.
The tractor-mounted, remotely controlled platform can be equipped with M16, M240, M249, or Barrett 50-caliber machine guns. Alternate mounts are available for a 40-mm grenade launcher and an M202 anti-tank rocket system. Capable of running up to 4 mph for as many as four hours, the all-terrain vehicle can visit places few humans would care or dare to tread.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, unmanned aerial-and land-based vehicles equipped with infrared cameras, chemical-detection sensors, and mechanical arms scope out enemy positions, defuse booby traps, and patrol base perimeters. With its ability to fire weapons, Talon SWORDS takes robot technology to the next and, some would say, logical level—the robot as a super-warrior.
Robots are well suited for combat, since they can tolerate abuse that would quickly knock soldiers on their backsides. Robert Quinn, VP of Talon operations for Foster Miller, says the plucky machines currently being used for reconnaissance and ordinance disposal missions have a lifespan that ranges from a few hours to, if lucky, about a month. Yet the machines are rarely down for long.
"As they get blown up, they get repaired in battle," Quinn says. "We're sending out very, very large numbers of replacement parts." Quinn also notes that Army technicians generally can get a repaired Talon, or a replacement unit, back into action in under four hours.
Quinn has heard many tales of Talon's almost Terminator-like survivability. One unit was blown off a Humvee while crossing a river in Iraq. The Talon flew off the bridge and plunged into the water below. "Soldiers later used its operator control unit to drive the robot back out of the river and up onto the bank so they could retrieve it," Quinn says.
Used offensively or defensively, mobility is a key Talon attribute. "These small 100- or 120-lb robots were first deployed in Iraq because they are man-transportable, not requiring a trailer," Quinn says. "The soldiers could put two of the robots in the back of their Humvee."
The dual-track robot can roll over virtually any terrain, Quinn says, including sand, rocks, mud, snow, and ice. It can climb stairs, negotiate rock piles, overcome concertina wire, and even right itself when flipped. A typical Talon model costs approximately $100,000, according to Quinn. "People have tried less expensive systems and, at the end of the day, you get what you pay for," he says.
Quinn is particularly proud of the Talon's usability. "We custom build them to make them extremely easy to use," he says. A single-board computer mounted inside an attachè-sized operator control unit (OCU) provides direct command access, via radio or fiber-optic link, to all key system operations including speed, cameras, sensors, a mechanical claw and, on Talon SWORDS, tactical weapons (Fig. 2).
Quinn notes that the Talon robots, whether used in defensive or offensive roles, function as electromechanical extensions of human soldiers. However, the day of the autonomous fighting robot may not lie too far off. In August, the Pentagon's Office of Naval Research (ONR) issued a research request seeking mobile robots that can think for themselves.
Specifically, ONR is looking for robots that can "understand cooperative and uncooperative" people using "remote physiological stress monitoring" technology and then inform its operator when it's involved in a risky encounter—with a suicide bomber, perhaps. While a human will still be in charge of pulling the trigger, the robot that encounters the individual will define the situation and potentially fire the lethal round—just like that futuristic robot you read about when you were a kid .