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What if wars were fought by robots? What if automatons were weapons? It would be man's cunning that would determine the outcome of conflict not blood and guts. Human casualties would be minimal and more technologically advanced societies would have the upper hand. This, in itself, would discourage aggression as would-be combatants would think twice about incitement or threat. Putting aside the sci-fi scenarios of Terminator or Transformers, military powers see the development of killer robots as nothing less but a step forward and a way to save lives.
The ranks of battlefield robots are growing. By the year 2015, the U.S. Congress has mandated that a full one third of ground combat vehicles will be unmanned. The Department of Defense intends to rapidly develop numerous unmanned systems. And it's not just the United States. Around the world robotics researchers are making impressive progress and boosting the autonomy and sophistication of these robotic systems.
Most of us are familiar with the Predator drone. Predators are operated by humans sitting at a computer monitor in places like Creech Air Force base in Nevada. That's at least 8000 miles from Afghanistan and the Taliban. These cubicle military pilots are engaged in war without any physical risks to themselves.
Then there's the Army's "Flying Beer Keg". This gasoline-powered vehicle weighs less than 50 pounds when fueled. It is small enough to carry in a soldier's backpack. It is capable of vertical takeoff and can be deployed from anywhere. It's purpose is to provide surveillance in areas difficult to cover by standard surveillance methods. It has the ability to "hover and stare". Unfortunately, after being tested in Iraq, it was decided by the Pentagon that it was too loud to continue using.
But what about actual in combat armed robots? Much is being developed as we speak and not only in the United States. The U.S. Army has been working with an experimental robotic weapons system called the Autonomous Rotorcraft Sniper System. It mounts a remotely operated sniper rifle onto a turret and attaches it to a Vigilante unmanned helicopter. Though intended to be used for the urban battlefield, it was rumored to have been deployed in the standoff between the U.S. Navy and pirates off the coast of Somalia. It is also used by the U.S. Coast Guard to take out drug running boats - accurate enough to disable the boat's engine without harming the crew.
Then there is SWORDS which stands for Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System. The system consists of a weapons platform which is mounted on a Talon robot. The Talon robot has been around since 2000 and was used mostly for explosives detection. With some innovation, experts engineered a way to combine the weapons system with Talon. Weapons can be interchanged on it including the M16 and the 240, 249 or 50-caliber machine gun. And if you're not impressed yet, the M202-A1 with 6mm rocket launcher can be attached. The system is controlled remotely from up to 1000 meters distance.
Another combat-ready robot is referred to as MAARS. It stands for Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System. This versatile ground robot system is capable of performing several functions some more lethal than others. Just to scare people, MAARS' controller can project his voice through a loudspeaker mounted on it and also send out an eye-safe laser. If the situation requires a more serious response, MAARS can launch bean bags, blow smoke, use pepper spray or throw star clusters. If a lethal response is called for, this robot is set to deploy 40mm high-explosive grenades. It can also use the M240B medium machine gun which fires 7.62mm of ammunition. Because of multiple cameras, the operator is able to control the robot's actions with a clear view of the surroundings ensuring optimum effect and safety.
Not yet ready for prime time but well on its way is the Warrior X700. Developed by iRobot, the same company that introduced the harmless house cleaning Roomba, the Warrior X700 is far from cute. It will be capable of carrying 150 pounds with its arm and moving 500 pound payloads. Right now the Warrior travels about 8 mph but engineers are aiming to make it capable of a four minute mile. Designed not only to perform life-saving functions for the troops, this robot can fire a machine gun or 40mm explosive rounds at 16 rounds a second. Most interesting is engineers are working on developing software that will make the Warrior X700 not entirely dependent on remote operators but capable of performing some battlefield functions completely autonomously.
The Ethical Dilemma -
There is an ongoing debate over the ethics of unmanned military machines, though it is unlikely the technology will be abandoned soon. Robots armed for combat are devoid of human emotions. They are under the command of young soldiers thousands of miles away. Robots cannot make moral choices as soldiers in the field must do every day. If they are engineered to be more autonomous will they eventually see the atrocities of war and the insanity of trying to destroy each other? With over 48 countries in different stages of military robot development it is easy to imagine numerous scenarios and possible outcomes.
The Three Laws of Robotics -
Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov created these rules -
1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2) A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except when such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First and Second Law.
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Do you think robots will eventually fight our wars?
"Soldier,rest! thy warfare o'er, Dream of fighting fields no more: Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking, Morn of toll, nor night of waking." Walter Scott