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December 01, 2004

ED-209, Now Online

Robotic gun-buggies being prepped for deployment

The future is now:

ORLANDO, Florida -- Hunting for guerillas, handling roadside bombs, crawling across the caves and crumbling towns of Afghanistan and Iraq -- all of that was just a start. Now, the Army is prepping its squad of robotic vehicles for a new set of assignments. And this time, they'll be carrying guns.

As early as March or April, 18 units of the Talon -- a model armed with automatic weapons -- are scheduled to report for duty in Iraq. Around the same time, the first prototypes of a new, unmanned ambulance should be ready for the Army to start testing. In a warren of hangar-sized hotel ballrooms in Orlando, military engineers this week showed off their next generation of robots, as they got the machines ready for the war zone.

"Putting something like this into the field, we're about to start something that's never been done before," said Staff Sgt. Santiago Tordillos, waving to the black, 2-foot-six-inch robot rolling around the carpeted floor on twin treads, an M249 machine gun cradled in its mechanical grip.

For years, the Pentagon and defense contractors have been toying with the idea of sending armed, unmanned ground vehicles, or UGVs, into battle. Actually putting together the robots was a remarkably straightforward job, said Tordillos, who works in the Army's Armaments Engineering and Technology Center.

Ordinarily, the Talon bomb-disposal UGV comes equipped with a mechanical arm, to pick up and inspect suspicious objects. More than a hundred of the robots are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan, with an equal amount on order from the UGV's maker, Waltham, Massachusetts-based firm Foster-Miller.

For this new, lethal Talon model, Foster-Miller swapped the metal limb for a remote-controlled, camera-equipped, shock-resistant tripod, which the Marines use to fire their guns from hundreds of feet away. The only difference: The Marines' version relies on cables to connect weapons and controllers, while the Talon gets its orders to fire from radio signals instead.

"We were ready to send it a month ago," Tordillos said. Navigating the Pentagon bureaucracy and putting together the proper training manuals are what's keeping the Talon stateside, for now.

...

Four cameras and a pair of night-vision binoculars allow the robot to operate at all times of the day. It has a range of about a half-mile in urban areas, more in the open desert. And with the ability to carry four 66-mm rockets or six 40-mm grenades, as well as an M240 or M249 machine gun, the robots can take on additional duties fast, said GlobalSecurity.org director John Pike.

"It's a premonition of things to come," Pike said. "It makes sense. These things have no family to write home to. They're fearless. You can put them places you'd have a hard time putting a soldier in."

And I've been waiting for this for a while: Why keep troops schlepping all that heavy weaponry and food when you stick it on a robotic mule and increase their firepower three or four fold?:

The M-Gator is a six-wheeled, diesel mini-Jeep that soldiers use to schlep about 1,400 pounds of gear. IRobot wants to have a robotic version ready by next year, so it can show it off to the Army and try to get funding for a full line of the vehicles, which would work as mechanical pack mules. The company hopes to be in production by 2006.

Now I know what you're saying. Didn't ED-209, um, kind of go crazy and start killing people for no good reason? Don't worry; they've seen the movie too:

By then, the armed Talon will have been in operation for about a year, if all goes according to plan. And for those of you who might be worried about the robot getting loose with a "runaway gun," Tordillos orders you to relax.

"The thing is not shooting on its own. You've got to have these," he said, waving a set of small, silvery keys, which fit into a lock on the Talon's briefcase-sized controller. A single switch causes the robot to reboot and return to safe mode.

Okay, excuse me. I now I have to abuse myself with the mechanical fury of a misfiring industrial robot.

Thanks to Senator PhilABuster for the warporn tip.


Update: Dave has more on the next generation of weaponry. I liked this bit:

I've got a friend of mine who works for the Army program that's rushing robots and other innovative technologies out into the field. One of her favorite little toys she brags about working with is the "throwbot," a small robot literally small and light enough to chuck through a window or down a flight of stairs to check for bad guys.

If I Were You I'd Listen To Him Update: Fun with .wav's.


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posted by Ace at 06:12 PM

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