U.S. Marines Want Robot Squadmates


Like all branches of the U.S. military, the Marine Corps has invested heavily in unmanned systems in recent years. When the Marines spearheaded the drive through southern Iraq six years ago, they owned just a handful of 20-year-old Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Today, the Marines operate newer Shadow UAVs at the division level, Raven UAVs down with the infantry battalions and companies, and small numbers of Packbot and Talon ground robots for engineer and bomb-disposal teams. While widespread, Marine robots fill mostly niche roles.

Now the officer that oversees Marine robot development wants bots capable of truly fighting alongside Marine riflemen, in large numbers. “You need to help me give them a better robot to operate more like a member of the squad,” Colonel James Braden told an audience of engineers and managers at the annual Unmanned Systems conference in Washington, D.C., last week.

Squad bots would perform a wide range of missions. Some, called “mules,” would haul supplies for the over-burdened infantry. Others would carry weapons to complement human fire teams. Both types of bots already exist in prototype form, but require significant improvement before they can “enlist” for day-to-day service.

The mules could be based on Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog bot, which looks like a headless horse and can “prance” over rough terrain while carrying loads of hundreds of pounds. Or, the mules might be wheeled, like those that Lockheed Martin was developing for the Army’s now-canceled Future Combat Systems. Legs would work better on rough terrain; on roads, wheels out-perform legs.

Regardless of the form the cargo bot takes, it must be adept at following the infantry, Braden said, adding that “it’d be nice if it didn’t make a whole bunch of noise.” The defense industry has experimented with a wide range of “following” systems for robots. Most rely on an optical or laser sensor that can identify the “leader” and keep the bot moving towards him. These bots also need some way to sense and avoid obstacles. Braden said today’s robots tend to get confused when they encounter people they don’t expect — especially short people and children, who might not match the bot’s standard definition of a person. Puddles and other flat obstacles also trip up today’s mule-type bots.

The search for a robotic mule reflects the Marines’ growing emphasis on unmanned logistics. This spring, Marine General John Amos told Congress the Corps would survey industry for a UAV capable of quickly transporting nearly a ton of supplies to isolated, front-line forces. U.S. Special Forces already use the NMIST Snow Goose bot, deployed by parachute, for cargo delivery. The U.S. Army does not share the Marines’ enthusiasm for robotic resupply. “I’m not sure it’s cost-effective,” said Colonel Gregory Gonzalez.

The Army is also skeptical of armed robots. In addition to adding cargo mules, the Marines want to eventually reinforce infantry platoons with robotic riflemen. The Army tried this with its prototype SWORDS robots in Iraq in 2007. The machine gun-armed, tracked robot (pictured), built by Foster-Miller, never saw combat. The Army, not trusting SWORDS’ reliability, kept the bot confined to base.

To work in combat, an infantry bot will need to have the same “muscle-memory” that human soldiers do, Braden said. The bot must be able to sense and respond to threats, very fast, while ignoring the many distractions of the chaotic, urban battlefield. Contrast that to the slow, methodical processes the Air Force uses when firing missiles from its Predator and Reaper UAVs.

“In the air, we have a very disciplined and regimented way to do engagements,” Braden said. “In the ground fight, it’s much more of a snap fight.” With firefights lasting just seconds, there’s no time for a human operator to micro-manage a robot’s reaction. The bot will have to detect and orient towards threats, all on its own, using some sophisticated blend of optical and audio sensors, and perhaps even radar. The robot would then ask for permission to open fire. “There is always a man in the loop, pulling the trigger,” Braden said.

Braden said the Marines will begin testing some of the basic processes that might result in an infantry bot, in the “next year or two.” Some of the biggest obstacles are conceptual. “One of real challenges in ground bots is building confidence in our tests for what autonomy means.” In other words, what should we realistically expect from a robot, and what should we resign to doing ourselves — at least for now?

(Photo: via Popular Mechanics)

This entry was posted in David Axe, English, Technology.

7 Responses to U.S. Marines Want Robot Squadmates

  1. Glen says:

    Sounds like cowardice to me. What you don’t have the guts to go and fight your enemy face to face like a true warrior? No, instead you would sooner send these robots out to do your fighting for you while you hide safe in your base like frighten rats.

    • Lynn Smith says:

      Honestly, Glen wouldn’t have the gull to face us widows Deb let alone star down the bag of fertilizer the cowards overseas use to kill our soldiers…. so Glen next time you’re out fixing your perfectly manicured lawn look at that bag of fertilizer because thats the only “warrior” the Iraqi and Afghani’s are using. Next time you hit send on yoru cell phone to text message your family from the safe confines of your cozy office remember those who were killed by the same simple act while the coward who did it watched from behind a tree while video taping it. Ignorance is in abundance in this country and its people like you Glen who truly get our soldiers killed overseas you want them fighting with rules, rules that ONLY apply to the people like our soldiers and country who follow them… There USE to be a saying… There is no rules in love and war… this statement is no longer true… the reason our soldiers are killed is because of bleeding heart liberals like yourself who stand in protest of the way we fight making it impossible to do a job and come safely home to families… so next time you fertilize and water your lawn think of the soldiers your beliefs have killed and the children you’re responsible for making fatherless.

      Good day
      Lynn Smith

    • Perisan says:

      hey you a*s head !
      whos is the coward? !
      you SOB or the soldiers who risk their lives for your sake ?
      now shut it and just watch

  2. Lynn says:

    Obviously the coward that killed my husband in Iraq by placing an IED in the ground wasn’t fighting face to face so the person who made an ignorant comment above about fighting face to face and facing your enemy has NO clue how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are being fought…they’re cowards.. My husband was EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) and was one of 4 designers of the SWORDS robot and if it helps to bring home ONE more servicemen to his/her family then I can’t imagine why anyone would be against it. Obviously your family isn’t over there and your not defusing IED’s 15 times a day on a good day more on a bad day. Obviously, its clear you have no personal connection with our wars. So allow me to give you one. My husband SFC Scott R Smith had 16 years in the military almost 17 when he was MURDERED yes murdered as thats how its listed on his DD1300 which is a CASUALTY report/death certificate and cause of death is HOMICIDE, he wasn’t just a soldier, he was a husband, brother, son, grandson, nephew and best friend, my husband and my best friend. He always gave me the last bite of his ice cream cone because even though it was his favorite it was also mine. He went out in snow storms to help dig motorist out of the snow because they couldn’t drive well enough to not run off the road and get stuck. He was honest and caring and gave his life fighting for the freedom you take for granted everyday, for the right of speech you so easily demonstrated with your opinion on this very website.

    So if you want to face cowards who bury IED’s face to face, go visit your local recruiters office, we’re looking for volunteers to serve.

    Lynn Smith
    Wife of a HERO
    SFC Scott R Smith
    KIA 07-17-2006

  3. Deb says:

    Glen- I’m not sure I inderstand fhe pure ignorance of your commmet. Please take the time out of your busy non-war, non-death facing job and explain to me how you could possibly think sending in a robot that would help save OUR soldiers lives is wrong or cowardly!?!?!
    I’d also like to join Lynn above and introduce you to my husband, CPT Christopher P. Petty who was also MURDERED by a COWARD who placed a remote detonated IED just one week after being released from prison, hid behind a tree far off and hit a button on a cell phone to set it off, killing 5 soldiers that day!!! 13 children lost their father that day, 3 wives, 5 sets of parents lost their sons, brothers and sisters lost their siblings! So how dare you sit there and call our Soldiers cowers for using technology that is made to save lives!!!!
    By all means Glen, you are such a non coward go get em kinda hero??? Well man up and sign up!!! I’m sure they would LOVE to place your ass on the front lines and let you fight the non cowardly way!!! I’ll be happy to show you the closest office and hand you the pen to sign on the dotted line with.

    Sincerely and with much appreciation of your non cowardly ways…

    Deb Petty
    Proud Widow of
    CPT Christopher P Petty
    KIA 5 Jan 2006
    “The Non Cowardly Way”

  4. Mimi says:

    Dear Glen-

    Wow. Cowards, really? I think at this point you may be sorry you wrote your ignorant comment, because I am now the third military widow to respond to your ridiculous opinion.

    Allow me to introduce you to MY husband, Sgt. Shawn P. Martin, United States Marine Corps. He was also an EOD tech, like Lynn’s husband, whose job it was to diffuse IEDs. Let me tell you a little bit about the incident that killed him. There was a robot involved…the use of the robot that day proved ineffective due to rough terrain and so his team leader, SSgt Stephen J. Wilson, made the call to go downrange on foot. Shawn, courageously and selflessly, went with him. He didn’t have to; he was trying to reduce time on target for his team leader and maybe save his life in the process. The secondary IED detonated, and killed them both. Does that sound like a coward to you, Glen??? People who WILLINGLY and VOLUNTARILY approach improvised explosive devices every single day, whether it be by use of a robot or on foot, are not cowards in any sense of the word.

    Do you know who is a coward? You are. Sitting there behind your computer and spouting forth your ignorant, nonsensical opinion. Enjoy your rights, Glen. Enjoy that freedom of speech. Our husbands died for you.

    Mimi Martin
    PROUD AS HELL WIDOW OF Sgt. Shawn P. Martin
    KIA 20 June 2007

  5. james says:

    glen you are a tool who is trolling people – saying things just for a reaction. My guess is you are 20-40 and live at home, and don’t support yourself. You are not important. It is this fact that causes you to find ways to get people to react to you.

    A significant portion of our military power comes from our ability to embrace technology and utilize it effectively. We Don’t have the most men. Our money isn’t vastly more than say the Chinese what makes our military have the edge? Our ability to embrace new ideas.

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