How Robot Armies Will Work

Effectiveness, Economics and Ethics

The All-Purpose Remote Transport
The All-Purpose Remote Transport

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 below.

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  • "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.