How Robot Armies Will Work

Futuristic military cyborg surveillance on the street.
The U.S. Army's Future Combat Systems (FCS) plan is a comprehensive strategy to upgrade the nation's military systems across all branches of the Armed Forces. gremlin / Getty Images

"The Terminator" showed us a future where battalions of sentient, humanoid robots wage war on mankind. While that vision is still well within the realm of science fiction, many countries are looking into creating robot soldiers, including the United States. In fact, in 2001, the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act set a goal for the U.S. Armed Forces -- create an unmanned combat vehicle force that would account for one third of all vehicles in operation. So far, the robot designs don't resemble the Terminator, but they can be just as lethal.

The U.S. Army's Future Combat Systems (FCS) plan is a comprehensive strategy to upgrade the nation's military systems across all branches of the Armed Forces. The plan calls for an integrated battle system -- a fleet of different vehicles that will use up to 80 percent of the same parts, new unattended sensors designed to collect intelligence in the field, and unmanned launch systems that can fire missiles at enemies outside the line of sight and several robots.


The robots are divided into four categories:

  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) designed for surveillance and reconnaissance missions
  • Small Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) that can enter hazardous areas and gather information without risking the lives of soldiers
  • Multifunctional Utility/Logistics and Equipment (MULE) vehicles designed to provide combat support in conflict situations
  • Armed Robotic Vehicles (ARV) that weigh 9.3 tons and can either carry powerful weapons platforms or sophisticated surveillance equipment

The MULE and ARV vehicles might mark the beginning of a new kind of warfare. There are three proposed versions of the MULE, all of which will roll around on wheels. Two of the variants, a transportation vehicle that could carry more than a ton of equipment and a vehicle designed to detect and disable anti-tank landmines, are similar to current military robots. The third variation is an Armed Robotic Vehicle-Assault-Light (ARV-A-L) device. It will have a reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) package and integrated weapons. In other words, this robot is similar to a human soldier who can engage the enemy in combat.

The ARV robots are less like soldiers and more like tanks. In fact, the Army's intention is to use the ARV-A robots as support for manned vehicle missions. The commander of a tank squadron, for example, could use ARV-A robots to extend his team's area of influence without the need for more soldiers. The robots could take the most dangerous positions and provide support whenever the manned vehicles enter a combat situation.

Due to budget cuts, many of the more expensive initiatives included in FCS may need to be postponed indefinitely. The MULE and ARV vehicles fall into this category. As a result, it may be several years before we see U.S. robots being used as combatants in war scenarios. Still, the U.S. military is determined to continue investing in robots with the hope that one day robots can take the place of human soldiers in dangerous situations.

In this article, we'll look at how these robots will work, and how robot soldiers might change the face of warfare forever.

In the next section, we'll look at the role of the robot soldier.


Robot Squads

Current military robots like
SSG Lorie Jewell, U.S. Army

Ideally, robot soldiers would be able to achieve the same military goals a human group could manage. They'll have to be autonomous and able to identify targets, distinguish between friendly and enemy forces, engage the enemy and interact with others in ways beyond simply firing a weapon. Right now, most robots are controlled remotely by a human being at a command station, though some robots have limited autonomy and can get from point A to point B with minimal supervision. For a robot army to be an effective fighting force, it would be best if individual robots could assess situations and make decisions without relying on human input.

The Army continues to work with government agencies like NASA, universities and corporations to push for more research into achieving this goal. Part of the Future Combat Systems Program is the Autonomous Navigation System (ANS) project. ANS's goal is to create a modular navigation system that technicians can install in all unmanned and manned ground vehicles. The system will include navigation sensors, global positioning systems (GPS), inertial navigation systems (INS), perception sensors and collision detection software.


One major concern for the military and engineers alike is the chance that a robot malfunctions. The possibility of a robot firing on friendly forces or innocent bystanders is often a part of discussions about using armed robots. It might seem paranoid, but malfunctioning robots have caused scares in the past. In 1993, a bomb squad robot in San Francisco malfunctioned while on a mission to disable a bomb. The robot began to spin uncontrollably just before it could grasp the explosive device. Fortunately, the robot didn't cause the device to detonate [source: The New York Times].

Military officials say that the goal of using unmanned vehicles and robots is to be able to engage in combat without risking human casualties, or at least human casualties on our side. Another benefit is that even though robots are expensive, they may actually be cheaper than fielding human soldiers -- robots require maintenance, but they don't need health or retirement benefits. They might also be able to serve longer terms than human soldiers could.

Many believe that robots will never completely replace human soldiers, but they will be used in particularly dangerous or tedious missions. A robot soldier will never be bored, so it's ideal for guard duty or long-term surveillance missions. South Korea plans to use robots to patrol its border with North Korea. The robots are called Intelligent Surveillance and Guard Robots, and they use regular and infrared cameras to detect intruders up to 2.5 miles away. The robots can pursue a target, demanding a coded access number once they're within 10 meters of the intruder. If the target can't give the correct code, the robot could sound an alarm or even fire a weapon at the intruder.

In the next section, we'll learn about the sort of equipment needed to make robot soldiers a reality.


Robot Tools and Weapons

The proposed MULE Unmanned Ground Vehicle will be able to carry weapons like missile launchers or machine guns.

Currently, there are robots on the market that can carry and fire weapons like shotguns, pepper spray, grenade launchers, or even Hellfire missiles. The MULE ARV-A-L robot can fire a line-of-sight gun and anti-tank weaponry. Remote controlled TALON robots can carry everything from an M240 machine gun to a .50 caliber rifle to grenades and rocket launchers. The South Korean patrol robot can either fire non-lethal rubber bullets at intruders, or carry a K-3 machine gun -- a light machine gun similar to the M249.

The U.S. Marine Corps' Gladiator Tactical Unmanned Ground Vehicle (TUGV) will be able to carry an arsenal of lethal and non-lethal weapons, including:


  • Shoulder-launched, Multi-purpose Assault Weapons (SMAW), designed to destroy bunkers, disable armored vehicles and break through fortifications
  • M240 or M249 machine guns
  • Light Vehicle Obscurant Smoke System (LVOSS), a device that launches smoke grenades
  • Anti-personnel Obstacle Breaching System (APOBS), a rocket that tows a line connected to fragmentation grenades; it's designed to destroy obstacles like landmines

A large, heavy robot could handle weapons that are too cumbersome, heavy, dangerous or powerful for humans. The ARV-A could carry a medium-caliber cannon, a missile system and a heavy machine gun system. The Army intends to use robots like the ARV-A primarily as support for manned vehicles, so the armament has to be comparable to a tank's.

Artist's illustrations of

Other tools will include sensors and cameras to allow the robots to perceive and navigate through a variety of hazardous environments. Robots like the Gladiator will have thermal imaging cameras, devices that detect heat and produce images that humans can see. Most robots will also have normal video cameras as well.

A major goal of the FCS project is to create a universal platform that the Army and other forces can incorporate into military systems from now on. One of the challenges the military has faced over the years is that it relies on a mix of equipment, vehicles and software that aren't integrated with one another, making battle coordination and tactical discussions difficult. Ideally, all military robots will share a common platform, giving officers the option to rely on multiple robots in a complex mission. For example, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles could keep an area under surveillance, broadcasting information to Unmanned Ground Vehicles as they enter the area.

In the next section, we'll learn about why some people are concerned about the possibility of robot armies.


Effectiveness, Economics and Ethics

The All-Purpose Remote Transport
Photo courtesy AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate

The first barrier to a fully functional robot army is technical -- no one has created a reliable, effective way to make robots truly autonomous. Scientists have made significant progress over the last several years, however. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research and development division of the Department of Defense (DoD), issued a $1 million challenge in 2004 to technicians and engineers across the United States to create a robotic vehicle that could navigate autonomously through a 200-mile course. Although 15 vehicles entered the race, none managed to cross the finish line.

The next year was more encouraging. A team of engineers from Stanford University won the grand prize of $2 million when their autonomous vehicle completed the 132-mile course in 6 hours, 53 minutes. Three other robots completed the course under the 10-hour time limit. The contest proved that it's possible to build a robot that can move across terrain on its own at speeds comparable to most military vehicles.


In 2007, DARPA issued a new challenge -- navigating through a complex, simulated, urban environment. Vehicles will have to simulate a military supply mission through a city, which means they will have to be able to merge with traffic, avoid obstacles and follow a planned route. The team with the fastest qualifying vehicle will win $2 million.

Navigation is one important hurdle to conquer in the pursuit of robotic autonomy, but when you want your robot to be able to locate, identify and fire upon enemy combatants, the stakes are higher. Discovering how to teach a robot to differentiate between enemies, allies and innocent bystanders could take a long time.

Apart from the technical aspect, the sheer cost of robotic research and production is a challenge. The DoD estimated in 2006 that the total investment in robotic research from 2006 to 2012 would be $1.7 billion [source: Development and Utilization of Robotics and Unmanned Ground Vehicles]. As war costs increase, budgets become tight and the Army is forced to sacrifice some of its plans. Many of the military's robotics projects are unfunded, and others are on hold indefinitely.

Then there are ethical considerations that arise in discussions about robotic soldiers. Would a country with an armed robotic force be more likely to invade another country, knowing the invasion would likely result in very few casualties? By removing the human element from war, do we make it even more inhumane? When a robot breaks down during a mission, do we risk sending humans in to retrieve and repair it? Can we be sure that robots will know when to stop attacking when an enemy surrenders?

While we may be years away from seeing an effective robotic fighting force, many feel we should try to answer these questions today. Scientists and engineers might be able to build better robots by factoring in these questions in their designs. Otherwise, those fictional battalions of Terminators might march a little closer to reality than we'd like.

To learn more about robots and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • "Army readies robot soldier for Iraq." The Associated Press. January 24, 2005.
  • Cho, Joohee. "Robo-Soldier to Patrol South Korean Border." ABC News. September 29, 2006.
  • DARPA Grand Challenge.
  • Future Combat Systems.
  • Garamone, Jim. "Future Combat Systems Proposed Cuts." TechNews. May 16, 2007.
  • "Report to Congress: Development and Utilization of Robotics and Unmanned Ground Vehicles." Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Portfolio Systems Acquisition, Land Warfare and Munitions, Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise. October, 2006.
  • Roque, Ashley. "Unmanned FCS Platforms May be Cut." January 18, 2007.,15240,122311,00.html
  • Tiron, Roxanne. "Lack of Autonomy Hampering Progress of Battlefield Robots." National Defense. May, 2003.
  • Weiner, Tim. "New Model Army Soldier Rolls Closer to Battle." The New York Times. February 16, 2005.