March 31, 2005
New robots take the battlefield in the miltary's bid to revolutionize the army despite fears from roboticists
By Michael Kan Daily News Editor
acking an M249 machine gun and laced in camouflage treads what may
be the next caliber of U.S. soldier. But at roughly three feet tall, with night
vision embedded in its mechanical eyes and a battery life of around four
hours, the military's newest recruit comes not from the ordinary military training
camp but off the technological assembly line.
Originally slated for deployment in Iraq this month, but postponed to an unspec-
ified later date, the remote-controlled SWORDS, or Special Weapons Observation
Reconnaissance Detection, is set to become the first armed mobile robot to see
offensive ground combat. The U.S. Army hopes that with the availability of an
infantry robot to support ground forces and engage in the high-risk combat tasks,
the military will yield fewer human casualties.
"Our soldiers are saying this device will keep (them) alive," said Bob Quinn,
spokesman for Foster-Miller, the technology company that designed SWORDS.
Despite their potential of saving American lives, Rackham student and roboti-
cist Steven Collins balks when he considers the long-term consequences of such
If robot soldiers like SWORDS do succeed in reducing the military's casualty
rate and increasingly take the stead of human troops in the future, Collins fears
warfare will unfold into an even deadlier affair: without the cost of human lives
weighed in America's decision to engage in armed conflict, unnecessary wars
become all too easy for the U.S. to wage.
"There's a lot of good uses for robots," Collins said. "Sticking a gun on them for
battle may be one of them. But I don't think we are ready for it. Psychologically we
are not. ... The potential for abuse is overwhelming."
In the last decade, robots have seen an increase in use by the military as U.S.
forces have actively deployed non-combat robots to the battlefield like unmanned
aerial vehicles outfitted for air reconnaissance to mine detecting seeker bots.
But SWORDS crosses a threshold where the military only dares stride since it
is specifically designed for combat operations. Some University roboticists like
Collins cringe at this new undertaking, protecting their own research from fol-
lowing the same fate as SWORDS and hoping the military will realize the flaws
in their vision. Extending to the political, philosophical and ethical spectrum, the
issue of using robots as weapons reflects the complex fallout between the military
and scientists and the ongoing use of the evolving technology for war.
Collins builds bi-pedal walking robots in the hopes his research will one day
result in artificial prostheses for amputees. Robot walkers will never take the
form of soldiers like SWORDS since they are impractical for killing he says.
And for that, Collins said he is relieved.
"I am glad to say that our robots will very likely never be of any use militar-
ily. If we thought they might, we wouldn't be developing them," he said.
For Collins, military robots like SWORDS break the ethical boundaries of
what technology is acceptable and what technology should be forbidden.
Like the science-fiction movies that depict out-of-control robots taking over
the world, Collins fears employing robotic technology for military purposes
will give way to disaster. Yet his fears stem not from robots disobeying their
masters, but from the masters misusing the robots.
The potential benefits of supplanting human soldiers with robots are enor-
mous militarily, Collins said.
"In the long-term future, people have speculated that human conflicts could
simply be fought out by machines with no cost in human life," he said. With the
development of such technology like SWORDS, that future may be realized,
and the cost of war will be minimized, Collins added. But with an American
public already desensitized to war, the last safeguard preventing nations from
resorting to military confrontation will be removed, Collins said.
"We only seem to weigh the cost of war in the lives of our own soldiers, not
in dollars, not in casualties, and certainly not in lives of those humans that we
call 'enemy,' " he added.
Jun Ho Choi, a Rackham student who also works on building bi-pedal robots
shares Collins's apprehension about robots like SWORDS.
"This may be a positive way to improve the military, but I do not believe this
is a positive way to improve our lives because I am worried about people becom-
ing less serious about war since robots are fighting. We might end up having war
In spite of the fears scientists may have of SWORDS, human soldiers will
still be manning the battlefields, said Frank Misurelli, spokesman for the U.S
Army Picatinny research center based in New Jersey, which is currently testing
the combat robot.
"There will not be 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 SWORDS hitting the shores of
Normandy any time soon," he added.
Rather, SWORDS is meant to work in tandem with a platoon of troops, he
said. Only two SWORDS will be assigned to a squad of 12 to 14 soldiers and will
act as more of a support unit that can be called upon to counterattack ambushes
or search through areas that may contain enemies.
Nor is SWORDS a self-thinking robot soldier, Quinn said. In essence, SWORDS
is just an extension of the soldier and that $230,000 worth of extension allows the
soldier to operate the robot from a distance of up to half a mile, he added.
"There is not an ounce of automation in these robots. ... It's just that (the
soldier) is pulling the trigger remotely," Quinn said.
No one can deny that SWORDS will save lives, Quinn said. But unlike Col-
lins, Quinn's believes the long-term effects of such technology will create a new
form of deterrent that he believes will promote peace.
Currently, the U.S. Air Force is unmatched as in the recent U.S. invasion of
Iraq. American air superiority was able to effectively bomb targets with little
resistance from Iraqi forces, Quinn said. America's enemies already realize it is
nearly impossible to oppose the U.S. Air Force, he said.
"Just like enemies don't use their air force against ours. They
know that we have this overwhelming capability. It would be sui-
cide to attack," Quinn added.
U.S. ground forces lack that tactical overmatch since enemy
forces can still inflict significant casualties to the U.S. Army,
Quinn said. SWORDS, however, aims to change that by distanc- Pan/Tilt
ing human soldiers from the violence so that armed resistance to
U.S. forces becomes futile. "It will create a condition that will stop
the enemy from warring with us," he added.
"Any and all technologies can be abused," said Bob Dennis a
roboticist and former professor of mechanical engineering at the
University, now teaching at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill. But fashioning robots into weapons is not an abuse of
robotic technology, Dennis said.idai
Dennis, who has worked with military organizations
such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,
a branch of the Department of Defense, said, "Any autono- Camera
mous guided missile is a robot.... Is (the missile) any more
or less evil than a robot that shoots people directly and hap-
pens to look like the Governor of California?"
A NEW WAR MACHINE
Asked if he thinks robots will ever replace human sol- TRAP
diers, Quinn said he is doubtful.
Robots have yet to eclipse the human-mind, he said,
and because of this, SWORDS will never
be given autonomy. Military command-
ers believe in this same philosophy, he
"There is nothing as sophis- Heavy Duty &
ticated as a human, (robots) are Tracks
tools for a soldiers. There are
rules of engagements that change.
It's just too complicated for auto-
mation," he said.
That does not mean the mili-
tary is not exploring other options
As part of the larger scheme of
the U.S. military's aim to revolution-
ize America's armed forces for 21st
century combat, Future Combat Sys-
tems is a joint effort from all echelons
of the military to further implement high-
tech weaponry into the armed forces and
connect 18 different sets of military command systems
under one network. By weaving U.S. forces into this net,
commanders envisage a faster and lighter army, which can rap-
idly deploy itself across the world in days and utilize a far wider
range of intelligence.
Charged with part of the duty of tying the FCS program together
is DARPA. As the developer of military technology like the M-16 rifle and unmanned
aerial vehicles, DARPA not only strives to link the FCS program together, but is also
spearheading a major frontier of the FCS plan and America's military advancement:
the development of future unmanned combat systems.
DARPA's aim is not to replace human soldiers as these unmanned systems will
only take a limited support role, DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker said.
"Congress has directed that one-third of operational ground combat vehicles
be unmanned by 2015, and that one-third of operational deep strike aircraft be
unmanned by 2010," she said.
The Pentagon reported in its forecast of the military's future, "Joint Vision
2020" that with the expansion unmanned combat technology, U.S. forces will
achieve one aspect of securing its military superiority.
"We want technology that allows the military to team people with autono-
mous platforms to create a more capable, agile and cost-effective force capable of
achieving its mission with significantly lower risk of U.S. causalities," she said.
Such unmanned systems include remote-controlled aerial vehicles fitted with
surveillance and combat weapons and the development of new unmanned ground
combat vehicles dubbed UGCVs, which would forego an onboard crew in order to
make gains in the performance of the vehicle.
Although it is yet to be determined to what degree these unmanned systems will
need the assistance of a human operator, sacrificing human guidance for military
superiority is a step in the wrong direction, Jun Ho Choi said. He also he fears the
military will lose control over robots installed with a limited intelligence.
"If the mission of the robots are 'passive' - things like sensing enemies, find-
ing mines, etcetera, I don't have any problems. But I don't believe we have enough
technology to have robots do things more 'active' - shooting at people, firing
bombs, etcetera," he said.
"In short, you don't want to give machines and robots the ultimate decision
making authorities in rapidly changing circumstances," said Mechanical Engi-
neering Prof. Yoram Koren, who has worked on robotics in the past. "The wrong
decision may create a huge disaster," he added.
But more troubling is the military's bid to amass new technologies for the usage
of a new brand of warfare, Collins said. The U.S. army even recently tried to
incorporate his research, proposing that he build a robot designed to carry ammu-
nition to soldiers on the battlefield.
"Although in the short run it is very appealing to think that we could use Army
money for better things, preventing it from being used to design better ways to kill
people," Collins said. But new technology has already gone too far in facilitating
America's attempts to wage war, he said.
"We can see that happening, when technologies are getting improved, we
become more desensitized toward war."
IN THE SHADOW OF TECHNOLOGY
When it comes to robots in the military, "It's a very touchy subject," Collins said.
Since military organizations like DARPA actively fund many robotic research proj-
ects, Collins said the issue is a taboo subject as military research has always been
seen in a negative light. Moreover, it can invoke controversial questions as to whether
certain research will benefit society or not, he said.
The University is also involved in researching robotics that could be used for military
purposes, which include designing robots for mine inspection or locating survivors of
disasters. While the University has no stated policy of prohibiting the research related
to weapons, the Office of the Vice President of Research adheres to the University's
tradition of conducting research aimed at enhancing life and the human condition,
according to the University Board of Regents's research grants policy. The professors
developing these robots declined to be interviewed.
History Prof. Nicholas Steneck and faculty associate of the Office of Vice
President of Research at the University who specializes in ethics in science, said
the scientific issues like the usage of military robots needs to be brought to the
attention of the public.
"The issue of a making war easier or more difficult to pursue is an important one
that has been and needs to be debated," he added.
Steneck argues that current developments in warfare technology have already
impacted how America wages war and weapons like SWORDS could do the same.
"Had precision bombing not been possible, it is doubtful that we would have
gotten into Iraq in the first place since there would have been so many more
civilian deaths," he said.
Robots don't kill people, Steneck said. "Ultimately, weapons do no more or less
than what we tell them to do, so it is the people and the decision making process that
require the most attention."
Newly developed robo-snake overcomes hurdles-
Unique configuration of
components allows robot to
traverse obstacles with ease
By Eric Sweeney
For the Daily
Whether it's powering across rugged terrain, slip-
ping through pipes or hurdling over walls, the snake-
like OmniTread robot, recently developed by the
University's Mobile Robotics Laboratory, is pushing
the limits of where robots can go.
Although serpentine robots are nothing new, Omni-
Tread's style of locomotion is unique, said Mechanical
Engineering Prof. Johann Borenstein, who heads the
University's Mobile Robotics Lab. Each of the five seg-
ments making up the 26 pound robot are covered with
moving tracks, which continuously propel the robot
forward. Also unique is its use of pneumatic bellows
- black cylinders located at the joints between the
segments that inflate with compressed air to pressures
reaching 80 pounds per square inch. The force pro-
duced by this expansion bends the joint to lift segments
of the robot over obstacles.
will be to seek out survivors in disaster areas.
"To me the inspiration was my desire to develop a
robot that can crawl through the rubble of a collapsed
building," Borenstein said.
When an earthquake reduces a building to rubble,
survivors may need to be located quickly. Because it
may be too dangerous or even infeasible for humans
to comb through such a landscape, robots like Omni-
Tread may be the perfect solution, with their ability
to crawl through small niches and crevices. Disasters
such as Chernobyl - the Russian nuclear power plant
that nearly experienced a meltdown in 1986 - and
Sept. 11 might also have benefited from a robot as
capable as OmniTread, Borenstein said.
The Mobile Robotics Lab began work with ser-
pentine robots in 1998 when the OmniPede, the
predecessor to the OmniTread, was developed. The
prototype had three segments and walked on six feet.
Together, the leg and foot resembled the cross section
of an umbrella, which moved in a continuous shovel-
ing motion to propel the robot forward. However, this
model was eventually found to be problematic when,
in deep gravel, the robot's legs would'squeeze and dig
into the gravel and become stuck.
"The main problem that I identified in the Omni-
Pede was that there were too few feet," Borenstein
three human operators. One person controls the first
two joints, a second person controls the trailing two
joints and a third person is needed to control for-
Improvements will be made with the development
of an OT4 model, which will be half the diameter of
the OT8 and won't have a tether. It will have seven
segments and one hour of onboard battery power.
They hope to have the prototype ready by June.
"Downsizing the robot is not nearly as difficult
as designing it from scratch," said Justin Tesmer,
a Rackham student working on the OT4. Still, he
added, implementing both onboard power and an air
supply will pose a challenge.
Naturally, applications of the OT4 will be even
more extensive than those of the OT8. "It's mostly
better for the military applications," Borenstein said.
The mobile OT4 could be used to scout out danger-
ous enemy territories, such as caves, providing vital
surveillance and reducing the danger for troops.
Borenstein hopes to eventually minimize the num-
ber of operators for OmniTread to make the robot
"I'm predicting in three years we'll have the capa-
bility to run a serpentine robot like this one with a
single guy who's driving it, and with the single guy
k, a -f y