Robots in the sky and on the ground are transforming warfare, and the US military is rushing to recruit the new warriors that never sleep and never bleed. The latest robotics were on display at an industry show this week at a naval airfield in Maryland, with a pilotless helicopter buzzing overhead and a “Wall-E” look-alike robot on the ground craning its neck to peer into a window.
The chopper, the MQ-8B Fire Scout, is no tentative experiment and later this year will be operating from a naval frigate, the USS McInerney, to help track drug traffickers in the eastern Pacific Ocean, Navy officers said.
The rugged little robot searching an enemy building is called a Pakbot, which can climb over rocks with tank treads, pick up an explosive with its mechanical arm and dismantle it while a soldier directs the machine from a safe distance.
There are already 2,500 of them on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a lighter version weighing 6kg has arrived that can be carried in a backpack, according to iRobot, the same company that sells a robot vacuum to civilians, the Roomba.
Monday’s demonstration of robotic wonders was organized by defense contractors and the US Navy, which says it wants to lead the US military into a new age where tedious or high-risk jobs are handed over to robots.
“I think we’re at the beginning of an unmanned revolution,” said Gary Kessler, who oversees unmanned aviation programs for the US Navy and Marines.
“We’re spending billions of dollars on unmanned systems.”
Kessler and other Pentagon officials compare the robots to the introduction of the aircraft or the tank, a new technology that dramatically changes strategy and tactics.
Robots or “unmanned systems” are now deployed by the thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan, spying from the sky for hours on end, searching for booby-traps and firing lethal missiles without putting US soldiers at risk.
The use of robotics in the military has exploded in the past several years as technology has advanced while Washington faced a new kind of enemy that required patient, precise surveillance. In 2003, the US military had almost no robots in its arsenal but now has 7,000 unmanned aircraft and at least 10,000 ground vehicles.
The US Air Force, which initially resisted the idea of pilotless planes, said it trains more operators for unmanned aircraft than pilots for its fighter jets and bombers.
Peter Singer, author of Wired for War, writes that future wars may see tens of thousands of unmanned vehicles in action, possibly facing off against fleets of enemy robots.
Unlike expensive weapons from the Cold War-era, robotic vehicles are not off-limits to countries with modest defense budgets and dozens of governments are investing in unmanned programs.
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