How Military Robots Work

By: Ed Grabianowski  | 
A black military robot tank
The Mega Hurtz is a Military-Grade Tactical Robot with an armor plated canopy and a non-lethal Paintball gun mounted to a turret. Chris Rogers / Getty Images

Everyone knows that being a soldier is a dangerous job, but some of the tasks that soldiers are required to do are more dangerous than others. Walking through minefields, deactivating unexploded bombs or clearing out hostile buildings, for example, are some of the most dangerous tasks a person can be asked to perform in the line of duty.

What if we could send robots into armed conflict instead of humans? Then, if something went wrong, we'd only lose the money it cost to build the robotic technology instead of losing human beings. And we could always build more robots.


The U.S. military has been developing robotic systems for all sorts of jobs for years now, and some of them were even on the front lines in Iraq. In this article, we'll meet some of the military's latest robot soldiers, find out what sorts of jobs they can do, and get a glimpse of what the future holds for military robots. (However, if you're interested in some background on the subject of robots in general -- before you learn about military-specific robots -- check out How Robots Work.) Now, let's get started.

This version of the ACER robot clears anti-personnel landmines.
This version of the ACER robot clears anti-personnel landmines.
Photo courtesy Mesa Robotics


Modern Warfare Meets Autonomous Systems

Today's military robots don't do a whole lot on their own; they still require human input. Instead of independent AI, most military robots are remote-controlled by human operators. The military doesn't usually use the term "robot" -- it calls them unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The 61-pound (28-kg) MATILDA robot can tow up to 475 lbs (215 kg).
Photo courtesy Mesa Robotics

Thanks to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, their computer brains are growing more sophisticated. AI is a form of computer program that allows the robot to process information and make some decisions on its own. Increasingly, the military is introducing autonomous systems that prepare attack plans on their own, but require human consent before they proceed. These robots are called Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS).


One other important thing to remember about military robots: Robots designed to help human soldiers have to be carried onto the battlefield by those soldiers. For that reason, robot builders try to design "man-portable" designs. A man-portable robot can be carried by a single soldier, usually in a special backpack.

Next, we'll find out why smaller is sometimes better when it comes to military robots.


Most Ground Robots Are Unmanned Vehicles

TALON configurations
Photo courtesy Foster-Miller

The most common robots currently in use by the military are small, flat robots mounted on miniature tank treads. These unmanned ground vehicles are able to tackle rough terrain and usually have a variety of sensors built in, including audio and video surveillance and chemical detection. These robots are versatile, with different sensor or weapon packages available that mount to the main chassis. Virtually all of them are man-portable.



The TALON is a man-portable robot operating on small treads. It weighs less than 100 lbs (45 kg) in its base configuration. TALON is operated with a joystick control, has seven speed settings (top speed is 6 feet/1.8 meters per second), and can use its treads to climb stairs, maneuver through rubble, and even take on snow.

Assault TALON
Photo courtesy Foster-Miller

Versatility has been designed into the TALON as well, with multiple possible configurations available that adapt the robot to the situation at hand. The basic TALON includes audio and video listening devices and a mechanical arm. A lightweight (60-lb/27-kg) version omits the arm. TALONs were used for search and rescue at WTC Ground Zero, and they have been used in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq for the disposal of live grenades, improvised explosive devices and other dangerous explosives.


Recently, the TALON was prepared to take on an even bigger role. All TALONs are now equipped with chemical, gas, temperature and radiation sensors. The military is even running tests on TALONs that carry guns. "TALON robots can be configured with M240 or M249 machine guns or Barrett 50-caliber rifles," according to manufacturer Foster-Miller.


Small Bots: Packbot

A Packbot Scout searches for booby traps on this truck at Najaf airfield, Iraq, on March 31, 2004.
Photo courtesy Army Public Affairs

The Packbot is another small robot that operates on treads. It's even smaller and lighter than the TALON, weighing in at about 40 lbs (18 kg) in the basic Scout configuration. Packbot is man-portable and is designed to fit into the U.S. Army's new standard pack, the Modular Lightweight Load Carrying Equipment (MOLLE).

Controlled by a Pentium processor that has been designed specially to withstand rough treatment, Packbot's chassis has a GPS system, an electronic compass and temperature sensors built in. Packbot manufacturer iRobot says Packbot can move more than 8 mph (13 kph), can be deployed in minutes and can withstand a 6-foot (1.8-meter) drop onto concrete -- the equivalent of 400 g's of force.


Packbot motion

U.S. soldiers regularly take advantage of this ruggedness, tossing Packbot through windows of hostile buildings and then using it to find out where enemies are hiding. Even if Packbot lands upside down, it can right itself using powerful treaded flippers, which also help it climb obstacles.

Packbot Explorer
Photo courtesy U.S. Army


Small Bots: MATILDA

MATILDA has several different configurations

MATILDA (Mesa Associates' Tactical Integrated Light-Force Deployment Assembly), made by Mesa Robotics, is similar to other small robot designs but has a higher profile due to its triangular tread shape. It weighs 61 lbs (28 kg) with the batteries, can be carried by one or two people and fits in the trunk of a car.

MATILDA has numerous possible configurations. For instance, it can be equipped with a mechanical arm or a variety of cameras and sensors, and it can even tow a small trailer. The robot has a top speed of 3 feet (1 meter) per second and a single-charge run time of four to six hours. In the event of tread damage, the quick-change tracks can be swapped in about five minutes.


Matilda Manipulator
Photo courtesy Mesa Robotics

Mesa Robotics is also developing the lightweight MAUD robot and the low-cost MARV, a treaded robot designed to be expendable. In the next section, we'll learn about some larger military robots.

Photo courtesy Mesa Robotics
MAUD robot
MAUD weighs less than 30 pounds (14 kg).
Photo courtesy Mesa Robotics


Big Bots: ACER

Armored Combat Engineer Robot (ACER)

Larger military robots are basically trucks or tanks with computers in them, operated by remote control. For example, ACER is an unmanned ground vehicle made by Mesa Robotics. This robot is about the size of a small bulldozer or a Zamboni.

ACER can handle many heavy-duty tasks, such as clearing out explosives with a mechanical arm, clearing and cutting obstacles down with a plow blade or a giant cutter, pulling disabled vehicles (up to and including buses), hauling cargo in a trailer and serving as a weapons platform. This robot can roll along with a mine-sweeper attached to the front, clearing a field of anti-personnel mines before any humans have to walk there.


Three of ACER's possible configurations

One of ACER's more innovative uses is as a firefighting/decontamination platform. Equipped with a pan-and-tilt nozzle, ACER can pull its own supply of foam retardant or decontaminant in a 350-gallon (1,325-liter) tank. A nozzle can also be mounted on a mechanical arm for very precise aiming.

Obviously, ACER is not man-portable -- it weighs 4,500 lbs (2,040 kg). This heavy-duty unmanned ground vehicle has a maximum speed of 6.3 mph (10 kph) and runs on a diesel engine. The fuel tank holds 19 gallons (72 liters).


Big Bots: ARTS, RAAS and ARV

ARTS, equipped with a Harley Box Rake, begins explosive-ordnance disposal activities.
Photo courtesy AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate


The All-Purpose Remote Transport System (ARTS) was developed by the U.S. Air Force for one purpose -- to help dispose of dangerous explosives. ARTS is basically a bulldozer, but instead of a bulldozer's blade, it has mine-clearing devices, a mechanical arm and a water cutting tool attached.

ARTS can be remotely operated from a distance of up to 3 miles (5 km) with line of sight. This military robot can also set charges to detonate explosives from a distance. ARTS weighs 7,500 lbs (3,400 kg).



The Robotic Armored Assault System (RAAS) and the Armed Robotic Vehicle (ARV) are both in development by the U.S. military. These are large-scale robots (ARV will weigh 5 to 6 tons) capable of carrying up to 1 ton of payload.

Potential weapons to be mounted on these tank-size robots include the 30mm Mk 44 chain gun or a turret system capable of firing Hellfire missiles. They have been designed so that they can be carried and deployed by the military's primary cargo-carrying aircrafts, the C-130 and the CH-47.

In the next section, we'll meet some robots that can take to the air.


Flying Bots: Global Hawk and Pointer

Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk
Photo courtesy Air Force Link

The military uses several different flying robots, mainly for reconnaissance. Instead of UGVs, these are known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), and they are sometimes referred to as drones. UAVs look like model aircraft, and they range in size from small planes that can be held by a person and launched with a good throw, like the FQM-151 Pointer, to full-size airplanes that operate by remote control, like the RQ-4A Global Hawk.

AeroVironment FQM-151 Pointer
Photo courtesy AeroVironment, Inc.


Flying Bots: Predator

MQ-1 Predator UAV
Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

Reconnaissance plays a key role in army plans. Drones help military commanders keep track of their own troops and also spot enemy troops that might be waiting to ambush U.S. soldiers.

Flying robots like the Predator provide constant real-time data on troop movements, enemy locations, and weather. Predators can be fitted with Hellfire missiles, and allegedly used these missiles during the second gulf war in March 2003. To learn much more about the Predator, see How the Predator UAV Works.


The MQ-1 Predator Hunter/Killer is equipped with two Hellfire missiles and a targeting system.
Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force

The Future of Autonomous Systems Is Bright

Today's military robots are limited in their autonomy and their range. They are essentially tethered to human controllers. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. government entity that funds and develops new technologies for military use, recently held a widely publicized robot race to see how far along robot AI had come.

It turns out that AI is still pretty limited -- not a single robot completed the course. So even as the abilities of robots increase, it seems that for the foreseeable future, a human soldier will still be required at the control unit.

However, there's a lot of money and effort being placed into autonomous weapons and robotic technology. We can expect far more unmanned vehicles and combat-ready robots to pass the prototype stage and enter mass production during our lifetimes.

For more information on military robots, check out the links that follow.

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