How Things Work: Military robots

Relatively unheard of a mere century ago, robots are becoming increasingly common in our military today. From the infamous Predator unmanned reconnaissance aircraft to land-based amphibious TALON robots, more often than not robots are the first to enter any battlefield.

There are many advantages to robots as compared to human soldiers — the most important one being their capability to perform missions remotely in the field, without any actual danger to human lives. Robots are generally sturdier and more capable of withstanding damage than humans, hence giving them a higher chance of success in dangerous environments — and whenever a robot is shot down, the military simply rolls out a new one. Interestingly, the first unmanned “aerial-assault vehicles” appeared as early as 1849, in the form of unmanned attack balloons loaded with explosives to launch towards the enemy.

Following the invention of remote control by Nikolai Tesla in 1898, the earliest battlefield robots appeared in the 1940s in the form of the German Goliath, an expendable minesweeper robot, which ran on wired remote control. By the 1960s, unmanned aircraft were already scanning enemy movements and deploying weaponry behind enemy lines; however, their applications were still rather limited due to political reasons.

In 2003, the U.S. deployed the Predator robot aircraft with great success in the wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Predator is essentially a remote-controlled aircraft with an on-board camera, and in certain cases is outfitted with weaponry such as Hellfire missiles. This allows it to not only be used for reconnaissance, but also assassination missions in areas deep within enemy territory — both of which were crucial in turning the tide in Afghanistan.

Although we are perhaps most familiar with the Terminator as being the generic land-based killer robot of the future, there is actually no particular reason for military robots to assume a humanoid form. In fact, the unwieldy and fragile human form pales in comparison to the military robots of today.

Robots designed for military applications typically have several major requirements. Among these, the robots must be robust enough to withstand enemy fire, usually require a low profile to avoid being targeted, and must be capable of navigating obstacles on the battlefield efficiently.

As such, current land-based military robots are generally ground-hugging treaded vehicles, with innovations such as treaded flippers to keep themselves upright and advanced navigation systems to traverse rugged terrain. These military robots are currently used as battlefield reconnaissance; for instance, the PackBot is, like its namesake, designed to be carried in a backpack.The PackBot can be deployed nearly anywhere — soldiers simply toss it out the window and set up the controls, allowing them to monitor dangerous areas remotely. Other robots are used as backup for soldiers by carrying ammunition, equipment, refreshments, and other essentials for personnel on the battlefield.

Currently, TALON robots are also being tested with several different outfitted weapons, including machine guns, rifles, antitank weapons, and grenade launchers. Larger military robots play an important role in tasks that would be too hazardous for humans to attempt, such as minesweeping and explosives detonation. Other uses of these robots include evacuation of wounded soldiers from fire zones, firefighting, and decontamination of war zones.

At the moment, robots are still generally incapable of autonomous operation. Software advances in threat recognition are still nowhere near reliable on a battlefield — for instance, a robot might not shoot enemy soldiers hiding behind a cow, but fire at a poster of a rifle.

Despite these practical concerns, there is little worry that advances in military robots are heralding the age of the Terminator. The majority of military robots do not contain much artificial intelligence at all, but are instead wholly remote-controlled.

As such, the chances of any of these robots going out of control and harming human lives is slim to none. However, the capability of robots to perform missions without endangering human lives is their greatest advantage and the main reason why military robots are here to stay.