ROBOTS IN COMBAT
Remote-control warfare: How PlayStation 2 saves U.S. lives
By Eric Fleischauer
DAILY Staff Writer
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Col. Edward M. Ward supervises a military program that spends millions on cutting-edge technology. When he hears that an explosion obliterated one of his technological wonders, he just smiles.
Don't bother asking the Marine for apologies.
"I can get more robots," Ward said at a Decatur Rotary Club meeting Monday. "I'd rather a $120,000 robot get blown up than someone's son or daughter."
As Rotary members used remote control devices to put two such robots through their paces, Ward, based at Redstone Arsenal, explained that the military began taking its robotics programs seriously after it deployed troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The impetus, he said, was the improvised explosive devices that claimed the lives of so many U.S. soldiers.
"We needed unmanned vehicles, and we needed them fast," Ward said.
He explained how the devices save American lives.
U.S. soldiers arrive at an apparently vacant house in a war zone. Without a robot, soldiers might draw their guns, break down the door and, covering each other, search the premises.
"But the bad guys are pretty adept at hiding in closets with guns," Ward said.
Maybe the house has no enemies inside, but it does contain an explosive device designed to detonate when the soldiers get close.
The end result of both scenarios was often dead Americans.
Replay the scene, this time with robots developed through a joint Army-Marine program.
Rather than entering the house, a soldier can toss a Throwbot inside.
Ward demonstrated by tossing a one-pound, dumbbell-shaped device, with a flexible antenna, onto the floor of the Holiday Inn. Safely outside and up to 100 feet away, soldiers can control the $2,000 robot's movements, wheeling it through the house while watching the video images from its search on a laptop-size device. An ambush averted.
Same house, but an explosive ordnance disposal team suspects an explosive device is inside. This time they send in a robot with tank-like treads and a claw on a 7-foot extendable arm.
As it enters the house, the $120,000 robot carries C-4 explosives in its claw. Upon locating the bomb, the bomb-disposal team members remotely drop the C-4 next to it. They then try to disarm the bomb, also remotely. If the disarmament is unsuccessful, they detonate the C-4, which explodes the enemy's bomb as well.
Worst case scenario
The worst case scenario is a dead robot. The soldiers, up to 150 yards away, are safe. The devices are so successful that soldiers use them for about 45 missions a day in Baghdad alone.
Ward is the logistics chief of the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office at Redstone Arsenal.
Robotic weapons systems have long been the subject of science fiction, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created an urgent need for the real thing.
The military was not too keen on the contraptions, Ward said, "until they ran out of Afghanis to search the caves."
Now there are 2,400 robots operating in Afghanistan and Iraq. By the end of the year, Ward said, there will be 3,000. The military is using 22 different robotic systems.
Ward thanked the parents in the group for contributing to the education of robot-wielding soldiers.
"Those PlayStation 2s really do the trick," he said, in training soldiers to operate the devices. "I bought 200 of them for training in Iraq. I have a feeling I'll be questioned about that one day."
One Rotarian asked whether his grandson, glued to PlayStation-style video games morning to night, was preparing himself for a successful career in the military.
"Only if he can make it through this little thing we call boot camp," replied the skeptical Ward.
Ward said the casualties in Iraq have made believers of military brass. Beginning Oct. 1, Ward and his colleagues will have $62 million at their disposal. "This is the Army's future," Ward said.
Bomb detonations and remote surveillance are not the only functions performed by robots. One called Fido can "smell" the presence of explosives. Another tank-like robot serves an important function in patrolling Iraq's 380 ammunition dumps, reducing the number of soldiers that must remain on guard.
The TALON robot, armed with a weapons platform, allows soldiers to shoot accurately while standing 1,000 yards away. The military, which first used it in Bosnia, has used it in about 20,000 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to its developer, Foster-Williams.
Ward said another robot under development could play an important role in returning injured soldiers to base. If a squad of 13 Marines loses two of its members to injury, Ward explained, four more must return them to base by stretcher. The remaining seven make an ineffective fighting force. Ward anticipates robots that can return the injured to base without jeopardizing the ongoing mission.
Ward, a retired Marine, was called back to duty in Iraq. He returns for a second tour Oct. 25.
"My job," Ward said, "is to put technology in harm's way."