Are robots replacing human soldiers?

How Military Robots Are Being Used Now

Michael Pomerantz, SWORDS
Maj. Michael Pottratz (L), explosive ordnance disposal deputy director of technology for the U.S. Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, explains the functions of the SWORDS robot at a technology conference in 2008.
United States Army

The U.S. is already using unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct surveillance and drop missiles on suspected terrorists overseas in places like Pakistan and Yemen. That's not to mention how drones have also been deployed stateside to check up on the folks at home. The efficacy and morality of these and other operations are controversial, but supporters say drones are less costly, minimize collateral damage and don't require putting American troops at risk. That's partly because humans can operate these machines – often in far flung, dangerous places – from the safety and comfort of a domestic operations center [source: Byman].

While drones do their work from high above, other robots are operating on the ground in battlefields worldwide. American forces relied on bomb-squad robots to inspect and defuse possible explosive devices during military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The remote-controlled machines moved via tank tread and featured infrared vision, multiple cameras, floodlights and mechanical arms in order to spot bombs and dispose of them, all while human operators stayed a safe distance away [source: Shachtman].


In 2005, Special Weapons Observation Remote Reconnaissance Direct Action System(SWORDS) machines became the first armed ground robots to see action on the ground when U.S. military forces put them to work in Iraq. Equipped with light machine guns, the robots were also mobile, but skittish military officials opted to keep them in fixed locations where they were used to defend perimeters rather than actively chase after bad guys [source: Magnuson].

Military officials have yet to OK the use of armed bots that can shoot autonomously, maintaining that the decision to use deadly force should ultimately be made by a human [source: Magnuson]. But armed robots are being developed to do more than just play defense.