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“ We call them tactical autonomous combatants because they'll operate largely autonomously with some limited human supervision. ”

Gordon Johnson, the Unmanned Effects Team leader for Project Alpha

Military Robots of the Future

Date: August 4, 2003
By: U.S. Joint Forces Command

Since Robby the Robot first appeared on screen in 1956's Forbidden Planet, science fiction in print, film and on television has pushed the limits of our imagination regarding machines of the future and their abilities to perform human tasks. From Star Wars to The Terminator, Junkyard Wars and Robot Warriors, our glimpse at the potential for tomorrow has amazed and sometimes stunned us. Well, get ready. The future may be closer than you think.

Project Alpha, a U.S. Joint Forces Command rapid idea analysis group, is in the midst of a study focusing on the concept of developing and employing robots that would be capable of replacing humans to perform many, if not most combat functions on the battlefield.

The study, appropriately titled, "Unmanned Effects: Taking the Human out of the Loop," suggests that by as early as 2025, the presence of autonomous robots, networked and integrated, on the battlefield might not be the exception, but, in fact, the norm.

In support of the study, USJFCOM sponsored a workshop at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore July 29 through August 1.

The workshop, featuring key speakers who are experts in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence, was designed to develop a skeletal operational concept for the employment of autonomous machines and to raise awareness throughout DoD about current robotic technology and it's future potential on the battlefield.

The goal of the study, according to Gordon Johnson, the Unmanned Effects Team leader for Project Alpha, was to articulate a vision for the use of robotic forces and promote the formation of a Department of Defense-level office that will coordinate and integrate efforts across the armed services, ultimately resulting in joint-service development of unmanned effects (UFX), rather than the course of service-centric research that currently exists.

"What we've found in the area of robotics, is that the Navy has programs, the Air Force has programs, the Army has programs," Johnson said. "But there's no one at the DoD level who has a clear vision of where we're going to go with these things. How do we want them to interoperate? How do we want them to communicate with each other? How do we want them to interact with humans?"

"Across the Department of Defense, people don't really have the big picture. They don't understand how close we really are to being able to implement these technologies in some sort of cohesive way into a cohesive force to achieve the desired effects."

The vision that Johnson wants the study to articulate outlines the many useful capabilities that will be available in robots before 2025. Characteristics of a tactical autonomous combatant (TAC) would include the ability to work in ground, air, space, or undersea environments, and in harsh conditions such as extreme heat or cold. In addition, TACs, unlike humans, would be able to operate in chemically, biologically, or radiologically contaminated environments.

"We call them tactical autonomous combatants because they'll operate largely autonomously with some limited human supervision," explained Johnson. "We're talking about, where we can and where we have the capability of replacing humans. We're not talking about the operational level or strategic level, but at the tactical level, still using humans where we need to. Using adjustable autonomy or supervised autonomy, humans will still have to interact with the machines and help guide them."

The imperatives for the research are broad but basic. First and foremost, national security is an overriding factor. In many cases, according to Johnson, robots will be more capable than humans. They will be more lethal, more mobile, and more survivable. They will have faster reaction times and have more and superior sensing capabilities. They don't have fear, they don't get hungry, sleepy, or tired, and they take humans out of danger. And, from an economic perspective, they are cheaper than humans.

"The robots will take on a wide variety of forms, probably none of which will look like humans," explained Dr. Russ Richards, Project Alpha's director. "Thus, don't envision androids like those seen in movies. The robots will take on forms that will optimize their use for the roles and missions they will perform.

Some will look like vehicles. Some will look like airplanes. Some will look like insects or animals or other objects in an attempt to camouflage or to deceive the adversary. Some will have no physical form - software intelligent agents or cyberbots."

Richards added that technology could currently deliver many of the capabilities that are envisioned as being necessary for robots. Robotic sensing abilities already exceed that of humans. Billions of dollars are being spent to improve and develop mobility, dexterity, power supplies, miniaturization, weaponry and artificial intelligence. Power supplies and artificial intelligence will be among the biggest challenges ahead, but there are others.

"The greatest hurdle is likely to be overcoming military culture," Richards said. "Just getting present-day decision makers to allow robots to perform some functions that are currently being performed by humans will be difficult. What is interesting is that we are already doing this. For example, Patriot missile batteries, close-in-weapons systems, cruise missiles, and other "smart" weapons are already pretty autonomous."

"It will be difficult to overcome the resistance to replacing human pilots, soldiers, sailors, and Marines with robots. Or, to allow machines to make decisions. The case will have to be made based on the imperatives."

And the clock may be ticking. Perhaps an even larger imperative, according to Richards, is that the United States is not the only nation that recognizes the future of integrated battlefield robotics.

"We believe that other countries or groups will pursue robotics," Richards said. "We can be at the vanguard, or we can lag behind and some day have to oppose a lethal robotic force. Better to be in the lead."

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