A 'Groundbot' Swarm in Afghanistan

America’s swelling ranks of groundbot warriors are being used in new, unexpected, life-saving ways. According to Lt. Col. Dave Thompson, the Marine Corps’ top robot-handler, there are more than 2,000 ground robots fighting alongside flesh-and-blood forces in Afghanistan. If these figures are correct, it means one in 50 U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a machine, not a human being.

Groundbots first made inroads among bomb-disposal units. The human bomb-techs could take cover and steer in a remote-controlled Talon or PackBot to disable a dangerous explosive device. But a third of the 1,400 fresh ground bots deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 weren’t for EOD, Thompson pointed out during a presentation at a Washington, D.C. trade show “Robots are not just for explosive ordnance disposal teams anymore … They [ground troops] are using them in ways we never expected.”

For instance, at least one unit sent its four-wheeler-size M-160 — a tracked vehicle fitted with a “flail” for detonating buried mines — to scout ahead of a (manned) Husky bomb-detecting vehicle. Thompson played a video that “showed a powerful roadside bomb destroying the M160,” National Defense reported. “That would have otherwise been the Husky and its occupants,” the magazine helpfully pointed out.

Bots are also being used to inspect vehicles approaching checkpoints, Thompson explained. Many other uses for unmanned ground vehicles are classified, he added.

Thompson seems bullish about groundbots’ prospects, but other military robotics engineers have expressed their disappointment. However big the number of these rolling and crawling robots, they are still pretty stupid. And there’s not much hope they’ll get any smarter anytime soon. For all the growing popularity and utility of America’s robot soldiers, they’re still way too dumb to do much of anything on their own. Demonstrations of groundbot technology “have abounded,” Dr. Scott Fish, the Army’s chief scientist, said at the same D.C. event. But military researchers still “don’t know when it is we can deliver … serious autonomy.

We don’t doubt that 2,000 robots have been delivered to the war zone, but how many of those are sitting on a shelf in the battalion supply room because they’re too flimsy for combat, too dumb to contribute to the fight or simply unneeded?”

In other words, for the foreseeable future groundbots will be limited to missions where human operators can closely supervise them — unlike airbots, some of which can already fly many missions with very little human guidance. We won’t be seeing totally robotic ground convoys or robot snipers any time soon.

That’s because on the ground, “even a twig in the road is an obstacle,” one Army researcher explained, whereas, in the air, robots can usually move fairly freely without colliding with anything. It’s fair to say this “sense and avoid” problem is now the major focus of military groundbot developers. Despite some promising results at a major Marine Corps test last year, the Pentagon still ponders on how it can train its terrestrial bots to be truly independent.

The ground bots are good for missions like — bomb-disposal, checkpoint duty, scouting in close cooperation with human troops. And there’s still plenty of room for more supervised bots to handle more of these particular duties

The head of the Marine Corps robotics division, told an audience at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Washington, D.C. last week that the number of robots the military employees is expected to grow even higher. At current levels, one in 50 troops is a robot, or about 2 percent of U.S. Armed Forces in the country.

The Pentagon has increasingly found new roles for robots in the military arena. Ground forces have started carrying small robots that can be used in critical reconnaissance and surveillance missions.

Pentagon officials still believe that bots manned by soldiers who are still superior to their ground counterparts will for now be the path to the future.

The number Thompson quoted comes on the heels as NASA prepares to fly a robot to the International Space Station on the Discovery shuttle, with a planned launched in February.

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