July 25, 2013, 6:12 AM — The U.S. Army wants to move from using robots as tools to creating a human-robot cooperative that will make machines trusted members of the military.
"The issue is can I have a squad augmented with robots cover more ground, be more effective, do more things on a 72-hour operation than they can today?" asked Lt. Col. Stuart Hatfield, Branch Chief of Soldier Systems and Unmanned Ground Systems with the Army. "We see a transition from a dumb robot being a tool to it becoming a member of the team. Do I have a robot that carries my stuff, or do I have a robot that is a member of the squad?"
The Army is using robots, such as semi-autonomous vehicles, mainly as dumb tools. However, the military has a different vision of the future of robotics and how the machines will fit in a soldier's life at home base, as well as on the battlefield.
The Segway 440X robot could be used to carry soldiers' packs and supplies, lightening their load and making them more agile. (Photo: 5D Robotics)
In 20 to 40 years, humanoid robots, using human tools, could precede soldiers into dangerous areas, performing tasks such as turning a wrench to open valves, opening doors and climbing ladders. Some day, the Army might send autonomous robots into battle to physically engage with the enemy.
While that scenario is likely decades away, the Army is working on semi-autonomous vehicles that can lead convoys and scan for IEDs (improvised explosive devices), robotic exoskeletons that can help soldiers move faster and longer, and wheeled robots that can carry soldiers' heavy packs, freeing troops to be more agile and less fatigued.
"It's about maintaining overmatch," Hatfield said. "The saying is, 'We never want to go into a fair fight.' You want everything to your advantage. If you're wearing 40 or 50 pounds of body armor, and you have 100 pounds on your back and you're chasing a guy in flip flops up a hill, you're at a disadvantage already. We want to lighten the load for the soldier."
The Army has tried to trim some of that weight, making lighter body armor, helmets and night-vision sensors, but they've hit a wall with that effort.
"We're at a place where there's not a lot more to save, and soldiers are still carrying 100-to-120-pound backpacks," Hatfield said. "Soldiers can carry a certain amount so they're forced to make trades. Do I carry extra ammo or water? If we can no longer lighten the load that a soldier has to carry, we have to look at off-loading that load for him."
If the soldier doesn't have to worry about how much he can carry, he can take extra water and ammunition, along with an extra pair of night-vision sensors.
The Army's plan is that a robot will make that happen.