Sunday, December 6, 2009
Terminator Now (Pt. 1 of 2)
I decided to write “Terminator Now” because I feel that the advancement of robotic technology has been neglected by the mainstream media, and as a consequence there are many who are totally oblivious to what is happening in the field. Robots and autonomous technology are the future of military conflict. We are right now only in the beginning stages of this transition, and it is important these breakthroughs don’t sneak up on us. I have tried to concentrate primarily on technology already in use or in development. The rise of the robots is inevitable, so what actions we as humans take is really inconsequential. My purpose in this writing has simply been to inform on the subject so that the reader can begin to anticipate and better prepare for this new age.
To the general populace, the current wave of military technology developing in all three branches of the United States military is the stuff only possible in science fiction. Most of the million dollar contracts currently funded by the Pentagon are invested in technologies straight out of the Terminator movie series or a H.G. Wells novel. It has been dubbed the era of “robots at war”. The future is here.
When the tank and the bomber plane made their debut they seemed like works of fantasy; strange, alien inventions of a new age. Today too the breakthroughs occurring in military test fields and scientific labs seem to be the work of fiction. Artificial intelligence programs capable of making decisions through complex software judgment systems; Robotic planes equipped with missiles and state of the art surveillance technology that are controlled by pilots on the other side of the world via satellite controls; Soldier droids that can be equipped with machine guns and grenade launchers. The age of robots arrived without anyone even realizing it.
The Prometheus of robotic technology is a company by the name of iRobot. (The company was named after the book “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov, which was recently adapted in to a Will Smith movie). iRobot was founded in 1990 by Rodney Brooks, Colin Angle and Helen Greiner who were all students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. iRobot originated with several small government contracts and to make service robots for individual sale on the public market. The Roomba, an autonomous vacuum cleaner robot was their most successful model. A range of robots for other home chores such as the Looj, a gutter cleaning robot, and the Verro, a swimming pool cleaning robot, soon followed.
It didn’t take long for the military to begin aggressively funding research at iRobot. In 1998 iRobot formed a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Soon after, what is perhaps at this time the world’s most famous robot, the PackBot, would appear.
The PackBot weighs forty-two pounds and, in the words of P.W. Singer, is about the size of a lawnmower. It is controlled via remote control, and in some instances have even been controlled using rigged Playstation and Xbox video game controllers. The PackBot essentially looks like a small metal box with tank treads on either side, and with two large metal poles on top, one with a camera attached, and another with a “gripper” hand. The tank treads are made of a special polymer patented by iRobot that allow it to travel over rocks, snow, mud, and even under water while moving at speeds of up to five miles per hour.
Most critically, the PackBot has eight payload bays and hookups that allow for interchangeable tools such as a mine detector or chemical weapon sensor. (Singer, Wired for War) The PackBot has been serving the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, primarily by disarming IEDs (improvised explosive device) in the war on terror. However, there are already reports of the robots being field rigged, with everything from claymore mines to a shotgun, to be the first combat robot model.
One PackBot costs about $150,000, which may sound like a lot, but is significantly cheaper than the costs that go in to training and then caring for a human soldier to do some of the same jobs. (Singer, Wired for War) Of course, there is also the obvious benefit of being able to send a robot in to a possible danger area to disarm an explosive than a human soldier. The military also obviously realizes these benefits as evidenced in the $286 million dollar contract awarded to iRobot in 2008.
iRobot is not the only company making history through robotic invention. Foster-Miller, a perhaps better known name due to the diversity in their products, has been providing for the military for almost as long. The company has essentially its own version of the PackBot, called the Talon, but its true gem is the SWORDS (for Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System), the robot that could be called the first Terminator.
The SWORDS is not a humanoid android robot, it essentially looks like a little tank. It is, however, the first robot created specifically for combat. In place of a gripper like on the PackBot, the SWORDS has a gun mount. Everything from a M-16 to an antitank rocket launcher can be equipped to the mount in less than a minute.
Unlike the PackBot, which has a small amount of artificial intelligence, the SWORDS can only be operated through manual control via remote. Still, the robot interface has its advantages. In addition to not endangering the troops operating it, the SWORDS is a lethal sucker. In military tests, the SWORDS hit the bull’s-eye seventy out of seventy times. For everything it can do, at $230,000 per unit, the SWORDS seem like a bargain. (Singer, Wired for War)
To be continued...
(Not much of a cliffhanger, I know, but I wrote this as a paper for school, not a blog)