The Improved Landmine Detection System, a robot based on Canadian military research from the mid-1990s, is currently in use in Afghanistan. (Defence R&D Canada/Suffield)
Where robots are serving now, and will they ever pull the trigger?
Last Updated July 19, 2007
In the summer sci-fi blockbuster Transformers, robots from another planet crash to Earth in pursuit of their Holy Grail. To hide in plain sight on our planet, they assume the shapes of earthly vehicles.
But Doug Hanna's "transformer" — the Shape-shifting Tracked Robotic Vehicle or STRV — doesn't change shape to hide, but rather to climb stairs, peek over ledges or fit through narrow passages.
The Shape-shifting Tracked Robotic Vehicle, or STRV, can alter its shape to climb stairs. (Defence R&D Canada/Suffield)
The STRV is one of several robotic projects being developed at Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) in Suffield, Alta. Hanna is the head of robotics systems for the DRDC, the science and research agency for the Department of Defence.
Suffield is the lead robotics lab for the agency, developing both ground-based robots and the software that enables the machines to operate more or less autonomously.
The STRV's four caterpillar tracks, for example, can each rotate through 360 degrees, allowing it to lie flat, stand up tall on the ends of the tracks or steady itself on two tracks while the other two reach up to a ledge.
The STRV was built as a research platform to implement the software DRDC researchers write to give robots more autonomy and to allow them to work together as a group.
"Some of our research is on how to get ground platforms to talk to each other and share tasks, or even to physically combine together, if that's what works, to accomplish tasks they can't do on their own, like get into a window that's too high," said Hanna.
It's possible, Hanna said, to make groups of robots communicate wirelessly, but there's also research into allowing them to infer each other's actions just by looking at them.
He gives the example of a team of robots being sent into a building to map its rooms and hallways before troops go in. If one robot sees the other leaving one room and entering another, it would just skip those two rooms and move on to the next.
"We think the really effective systems that we develop for addressing hard problems that the military and public security face is in multi-robot systems," said Hanna.
Another experimental robot DRDC is working on is the Micro-Hydraulics Toolkit (MHT), a robot with wheels at the ends of four articulated legs.
"It's very much an experimental piece. It's way out there," said Hanna.
The idea is that such a robot would roll along on its wheels until it encounters an obstacle, when it would extend its legs and attempt to climb over it.
The MHT is also used to test software to control robots with multiple degrees of freedom: it can tilt from side to side, pitch back and forth, and move each of its legs independently.
"It's not very practical, in terms of what you might see in Afghanistan or Iraq right now," Hanna said.
The iRobot PackBot is in use in Mosul, Iraq, by the 705th Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company of the U.S. Army. (iRobot)
Being used in Afghanistan
What you might see in Afghanistan right now is the ILDS, or Improved Landmine Detection System, a newer version of the mine-detection robot the DRDC developed in the mid-1990s.
The system involves two robots, a remote detection vehicle — which uses sensors, metal detectors and ground penetrating radar to find mines — and a protection vehicle to sweep out a safe path for the detection vehicle.
General Dynamics Canada, a Calgary company, built the ILDS based on technology from DRDC's development project.
Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are also using unmanned air vehicles (UAV) for surveillance and reconnaissance. The rail-launched drones are each about 3.5 metres long and run on gas-powered Bombardier snowmobile engines.
DRDC is also looking into using autonomous aircraft to ship supplies to areas where soldiers are fighting the enemy, where a ground-based robotic vehicle would be too vulnerable.
"If you have an autonomous supply run on the ground, it's pretty easy to defeat even the best of those systems, if you're the insurgents. If they're in the air, it's a different story," said Hanna.
Such a robot would require a level of autonomy that doesn't exist in the field right now. Hanna said that's the main focus of the research side, "trying to increase the levels of autonomy, trying to put learning into robots and machine intelligence, so these machines get better and better at what they do, and also more capable of doing more things on their own."
For now, the systems seen in the field, such as the mine detecting robot, are essentially remote-controlled vehicles, operated by soldiers out of harm's way, using a joystick and video screen.
"We can also run these systems in what we call a semi-autonomous mode, where they follow waypoints on their own," said Hanna.
Hanna describes a "human-in-the-loop" system, where the robots run autonomously until they get stuck or require instructions. Then, they will alert the operator, who will guide the robot around an obstacle or complete a task to complex for the robot itself, allowing it to continue on its own.
The iRobot Warrior with a robotic arm. (iRobot)
The weapons question
This "sliding scale" of autonomy, as Hanna calls it, is the source of much of the controversy over military robots, especially when it comes to putting weapons into their "hands."
Hanna says his section of DRDC doesn't deal with the robots' "payloads," that is, the equipment mounted on a robot to accomplish a specific task, such as a chemical weapons detector, a gun or even just cargo.
"Our research is just about the robot, its ability to navigate locally and globally, and be where it needs to be to do what it needs to do, but we don't implement payloads," said Hanna.
One private company that is implementing both military robotic systems and their payloads is iRobot, the makers of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner.
Chairman and cofounder Helen Greiner boasts that her company has sold over 1,000 of its Packbots to the militaries in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and other countries.
"They're out there being used by soldiers every day, and they've been credited with saving the lives of dozens and dozens of soldiers," she said. The 70-centimetre-long robot is used for scouting, reconnaissance and, when fitted with a two-metre-long robotic arm, for bomb disposal.
IRobot has also recently announced a partnership with Taser, to mount a stun gun on a Packbot.
A Packbot, while a quick and versatile little robot, is not a very quiet machine, so it's not likely to sneak up on a hostage-taker and catch him unawares.
"If you send [a Packbot] in, they see it coming, and they could potentially take a shot at it, but that's OK, because what you've learned from that is that person's willing to take a shot. And a shot at the robot is no big deal."
When added to the capabilities that already exist for the Packbot, such as real-time video and two-way communications, Grenier said a Taser could give soldiers in the field additional options when handling a potentially dangerous situation.
"If you send a robot in, it can potentially de-amplify the situation, set up communication, get a good look at what's there and, now, take some action," Grenier said.
A Packbot armed with a Taser can be used to subdue an enemy, instead of waiting for soldiers to intervene, she said.
Grenier said: "We love the fact that it's less-than-lethal," but the payloads available for Packbot's big brother do include lethal weapons, such as guns and rocket launchers.
The iRobot Warrior is a much larger version of a Packbot and can travel at speeds up to 24 km/h, can carry up to 70 kilograms and includes a robotic arm to pick up a person.
"The Packbot is a tool that the squad uses, but the Warrior, you can think about it taking on missions that a soldier would take on."
Foster-Miller, a competitor of iRobot, had previously announced a version of its Talon robot, called Swords, can carry a variety of weapons.
Mounting weapons as the payload on military robots raises the spectre of them firing those weapons of their own accord, based on their programming, a fear raised so often in science fiction.
Grenier said that the decision to fire any weapon mounted on a robotic system will fall to the soldier operating it — the "human-in-the-loop."
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