Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Modernising the US Army's use of robotic systems in combat

The US Army has now been using robots in combat for more than a decade. As Major Kenneth Rose, of its Training and Doctrine Command (TDC), once said: "Machines don't get tired. They don't close their eyes. They don't hide under trees when it rains and they don't talk to their buddies... A human's attention to detail on guard duty drops dramatically in the first 30 minutes... Machines know no fear."

These are just some of the practical advantages that arise from the use of robotic technology in warfare. It is therefore no surprise that military research continues to focus on how robots can be made more autonomous, often with the ultimate aim of replacing personnel in dangerous operations and behind enemy lines.

However, at a recent Washington DC conference held by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), there were calls from one top Defense Department official for the US Army to start developing a robust set of operational rules for their future use.

Major General Walter Davis, Deputy Director of the Capabilities Integration Center at the TDC, said the Army is still working out its training and doctrine for use of robotic systems. Key to this, he added, are the service's modernisation plans that call for a networked and highly-automated force.

Speaking to Defense Systems in August, Davis said future combat environments for the US and its allies would mostly be of a complex, urban nature. Enemies faced by American forces have shown themselves to be adaptable, decentralised and highly aware of the battlefield situation, he told the news source.

In order to overcome these challenges, the Army needs to adopt a flexible approach that can help troops tackle a variety of operational scenarios, from combined arms engagements right through to humanitarian work, said Davis.

He went on to outline the guiding principles developed by the service for using unmanned systems on the battlefield. It hopes these will allow the US Army to meet its future goals. "Humans should not have to accommodate robotic systems," is one of the principles, as well as early user and technology developer collaboration and a 'system of systems' methodology to measure effectiveness.

But Davis stressed the point that in order to get the most benefit from these guiding principles, the Army will need to develop procedures to use robotics and automated systems in a variety of tasks, from reconnaissance and surveillance to removing the wounded from the battlefield. “We need to get a good comprehensive view of robotics capabilities,” he added.

Also showcased at the AUVSI convention in Washington was Harris Corp's robotic arm with 'haptic' feedback technology, which enabled the operator to feel whatever the remote-controlled device itself comes into contact with. If the arm brushes against a wall, for instance, the operator will sense that tension as if he himself had come into contact with the hard surface.

Paul Bosscher, Chief Robotics Engineer, said: "The soldier can have human-like dexterity, human-like precision, high-fidelity control. They can go up to these roadside bombs, and instead of just blowing them up, they can use the robot to just cut wires, pull blasting caps, surgically defeat the explosive device and in the process save all of this forensic evidence that they use to ID who the bomb makers are, how they're making it, and what their bomb-making methods are."

With improvised explosive devices (IEDs) now the insurgents' weapon of choice in Afghanistan, robotic systems can only be expected to move upwards on the US Army's list of priorities. Last year, in Afghanistan alone, 58 per cent of casualties came as a consequence of IEDs.

As Davis concluded, the key reason to bring more robotic elements into soldier modernisation is to increase safety for armed forces personnel. "From the Army’s perspective, it’s all about that soldier - and protecting them."

by Dan Mellins Cohen
Soldier Technology
Future ISR


  1. With an increase in the use of unmanned vehicles I was wondering why our men are often still not able to use this new technology in the field.

    As a infantry soldier when we are asked to do Recce missions it is ourselves we are putting at risk and we have a high risk of being shot at.

    When will it be that all units will be able to have the use of these?

  2. Are you using an image from the film "Short Circuit"? Where is the photo caption and credit?