As of 2006, the U.S. military has deployed approximately 4,000 battle robots for active duty. The military uses these robots primarily to "sniff out" bombs and clear buildings and other enclosed structures. The Army's Future Combat Systems (FCS) program is looking to spend about $300 million to fund updates to expand the roles of battlefield robots. The FCS seeks robotic mules that can carry cargo alongside troops over uneven terrain and much larger unmanned vehicles that can operate with no human input to scout areas and patrol borders, sending crucial data back to troops. If these large, autonomous vehicles can also carry huge payloads over difficult terrain without losing speed, that'd be an added bonus. Crusher or something like it would be ideal in the latter roles.
Crusher itself will probably not see deployment. It's mostly a research project and will be in testing and experimentation until 2008. At that time, the NREC will turn the Crusher technology over to DARPA so it can be applied to related projects, most of which fall under the domain of the Future Combat System. The FCS is running development programs like the Armed Reconnaissance Vehicle (ARV), which aims to realize a fully autonomous, battle-ready vehicle for reconnaissance missions; and the Autonomous Navigation System (ANS), an overarching program to develop common-platform autonomy capabilities for a wide range of military robots. The overall goal of FCS is seamless integration of both manned and unmanned vehicles, ground and air, into a structure that can be managed via a single, web-like control system.
By way of FCS, we may see Crusher-like vehicles supporting troops in battle operations in five to 10 years. They'll most likely start out in reconnaissance roles and then transition into combat, supporting troops as opposed to replacing them. But Crusher's cutting-edge autonomy technology is not military specific. The NREC envisions – and has in the works – research projects that utilize the systems developed for Crusher in civilian applications. In a decade, we could see autonomous vehicles performing risky tasks in areas like farming, mining and construction, ultimately transferring some of the danger faced by humans in these fields onto replaceable robotic counterparts that feel no pain.
For more information on Crusher, UGVs and related topics, check out the links on the next page.