Robot ranks expand on the battlefield

Ratio of machines to troops is 1 to 50

Robots are playing an ever-expanding role in the Afghanistan war and the ratio of such machines to troops on the ground is 1 to 50, reports William Matthews at NextGov.

The trend, for obvious reasons, is to give the robots the most dangerous tasks, such as clearing roadside bombs, entering buildings before others, and reconnoitering remote and hostile territory.

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Currently there are upwards of 2,000 robots deployed in Afghanistan. The number of robots supporting U.S. forces is expected to continue to rise. By 2013 the ratio should increase to 1 robot for every 30 troops in combat, said Robert Moses, who heads the government and industrial robots division of iRobot.

Companies such as iRobot are constantly upgrading their machines’ capabilities. “We’ve got some technology that we’re putting on our robots that map where the robot has been," Moses said. The company is also enhancing its machines with a self-righting capability and programming them to automatically return to their base location, he said.

iRobot’s PackBots, which are equipped with wire cutters, spades, rakes and cameras, can handle explosive ordnance disposal and also inspect vehicles at checkpoints. In 2010, the Army purchased 350 Packbots from the company. Most are still performing their mission, although four were destroyed in explosions and others have come back in pieces for repair, Moses said.

The PackBots, which weigh 60 pounds and rumble along on treads like miniature tanks, also can be equipped with chemical and biological weapons sensors and an assortment of cameras for reconnaissance.

The company is at work on a smaller, 30-pound robot and also a 5-pounder that infantry troops can carry in their backpacks.

As many as 80 countries either have acquired or plan to acquire robots for military use, according to ABI Research, a New York-based market research firm.

The market for military robots is expected to grow from $5.8 billion in 2010 to $8 billion in 2016, ABI said in a report published this month.

While one soldier typically operates one robot, future advancements in autonomy could make it possible for one soldier to operate multiple robots. “We’d like to get to where one operator can operate five to 10 robots,” Moses said.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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