US prepares ‘robo-soldier’

New Jersey – The rain is turning to snow on a blustery January morning, and all the men gathered in a parking lot here surely would prefer to be inside.

But the weather couldn’t matter less to the robotic sharpshooter they are here to watch as it splashes through puddles, the barrel of its machine gun pointing the way.

The Army is preparing to send 18 of these remote-controlled robotic warriors to fight in Iraq beginning in March or April.

Made by a small Massachusetts company, the SWORDS, short for Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems, will be the first armed robotic vehicles to see combat, years ahead of the larger Future Combat System vehicles currently under development by big defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics Corp.

It’s easy to humanize the SWORDS (a tendency robotics researchers say is only human) as it moves out of the flashy lobby of an office building and into the cold with nary a shiver.

Military officials like to compare the roughly 1-meter-high (3-foot-high) robots favorably to human soldiers: They don’t need to be trained, fed or clothed. They can be boxed up and warehoused between wars. They never complain. And there are no letters to write home if they meet their demise in battle.

But officials are quick to point out that these are not the autonomous killer robots of science fiction. A SWORDS robot shoots only when its human operator presses a button after identifying a target on video shot by the robot’s cameras.

‘The only difference is that his weapon is not at his shoulder, it’s up to half a mile (800 meters) away,’ said Bob Quinn, general manager of Talon robots for Foster-Miller Inc., the Waltham, Massachusetts, company that makes the SWORDS. As one Marine fresh out of boot camp told Quinn upon seeing the robot: ‘This is my invisibility cloak.’

Quinn said it was a ‘bootstrap development process’ to convert a Talon robot, which has been in military service since 2000, from its main mission – defusing roadside bombs in Iraq_ into the gunslinging SWORDS.

It was a joint development process between the Army and Foster-Miller, a robotics firm bought in November by QinetiQ Group PLC, which is a partnership between the British Ministry of Defence and the Washington holding company The Carlyle Group.

Army officials and employees of the robotics firm heard from soldiers ‘who said ‘My brothers are being killed out here. We love the EOD (explosive ordnance disposal), but let’s put some weapons on it,” said Quinn.

Working with soldiers and engineers at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, it took just six months and only about $2 million (?1.5 million) in development money to outfit a Talon with weapons, according to Quinn and Anthony Sebasto, a technology manager at Picatinny.

The Talon had already proven itself to be pretty rugged. One was blown off the roof of a Humvee and into a nearby river by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Soldiers simply opened its shrapnel-pocked control unit and drove the robot out of the river, according to Quinn.

The $200,000, armed version will carry standard-issue Squad Automatic Weapons, either the M249, which fires 5.56-millimeter rounds at a rate of 750 per minute, or the M240, which can fire about 700 to 1,000 7.62-millimeter rounds per minute. The SWORDS can fire about 300 rounds using the M240 and about 350 rounds using the M249 before needing to reload.

All its optics equipment – the four cameras, night vision and zoom lenses – were already in the Army’s inventory.

‘It’s important to stress that not everything has to be super high tech,’ said Sebasto. ‘You can integrate existing componentry and create a revolutionary capability.’

The SWORDS in the parking lot at the headquarters of the cable news station CNBC had just finished showing off for the cameras, climbing stairs, scooting between cubicles, even broadcasting some of its video on the air.

Its developers say its tracks, like those on a tank, can overcome rock piles and barbed wire, though it needs a ride to travel faster than 6.5 kph (4 mph).

Running on lithium ion batteries, it can operate for one to four hours at a time, depending on the mission. Operators work the robot using a 13.5-kilogram (30-pound) control unit that has two joysticks, a handful of buttons and a video screen. Quinn says that may eventually be replaced by a ‘Gameboy’ type of controller hooked up to virtual reality goggles.

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