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Weapons: Lifesaving Robotics
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June 29, 2010: One of the most important (in terms of saving lives) new weapon to appear in the last decade is the RWS (Remote Weapon Stations). This is the ubiquitous remote control weapon (usually a machine-gun) seen on so many vehicles (from hummers to MRAPs and tanks). The leader in the field, Norwegian firm Kongsberg, has sold over 15,000 of its Protec (Protector) Remote Weapon Stations. Over two-thirds have been bought by the U.S. Army, at a cost of $2.2 billion (about $212,000 each). Widespread and successful use on Stryker, M-1 and hummer vehicles has led the U.S. Army to adopt the Kongsberg system as standard. The initial order, in 2007, was for 6,500. But the success of the system increased demand. The remote control gun turret has now become a standard system on American combat vehicles.

Kongsberg has several models of the Protec, to support small, medium and large sized weapons. Now there are a lot of competitors, if only because Kongsberg can't keep up with the demand. Many of the new competitors are trying to grab niche markets. The more obvious ones are those demanding RWS that can handle larger weapons, like 25mm or 30mm autocannon. But the most interesting new development is the portable RWS. It can be mounted on a hummer, but quickly removed, and carried by two troops, and set up anywhere using a tripod. The operator can stay behind cover, while the light machine-gun, exposed to hostile fire, unflinchingly takes on the enemy. There are lots of combat situations that could make use of this lightweight RWS.

The Protec RWS is the key component of the U.S. Army CROWS (common remotely operated weapon stations). This idea of a remote control turret has been around for nearly half a century, but years of tinkering, and better technology, have finally made the remote control gun turret finally work effectively, dependably and affordably. This has made the RWS practical for widespread combat use. While some troops miss the greater feeling of situational awareness (especially being able to hear and smell the surroundings) you got as an old-school turret gunner, most soldiers and marines have adapted and accepted the new system. What it lacks in the smelling and hearing department, it makes up in terms of night vision and zoom. And it's a lot safer.

CROWS is a real life saver, not to mention anxiety reducer, for troops who drive through bandit country a lot, and man the turret gun. You're a target up there, and too often, the bad guys get you. Not with CROWS. The gunner is inside the vehicle, checking out the surroundings (with night vision, zoom and telephoto capabilities). CROWS also has a laser rangefinder built in, as well as a stabilizer mechanism to allow more accurate fire while the vehicle is moving. The CROWS systems (RWS, weapon and installation) cost about $260,000 each, and can mount a variety of weapons (M2 .50 caliber machine-gun, MK19 40-mm automatic grenade launcher, M240B 7.62mm machine-gun and M249 5.56mm squad automatic weapon). CROWS comes in several different configurations, based on weapon mounted and armor installed (light, at 74 kg/163 pounds, standard, at 136 kg/298 pounds and CROWS II, at 172 kg/379 pounds.) The heaviest version is usually used in MRAP (armored trucks) and has a better user interface, a thermal imager and sniper detection system. By the end of 2006, there were about a thousand CROWS in service. There are now over 8,000. Many of the enemy fighters have seen Western or Japanese films featuring killer robots, and often think that's what they are facing. The fear factor is real, and it helps.

The accuracy of the fire, and uncanny speed with which the CROWS gun moves so quickly and deliberately, is due to something few officers expected. The guys operating these systems grew up playing video games. They developed skills in operating computer systems (video games) very similar to the CROWS controls. This was important, because viewing the world around the vehicle via a vidcam is not as enlightening (although a lot safer) than having your head and chest exposed to the elements (and any firepower the enemy sends your way). But experienced video gamers are skilled at whipping that screen view around, and picking up any signs of danger.

Since many troops have years of experience with video games, they take to CROWS quickly, and very effectively. This has further frightened hostile gunmen, who are quick to attribute magical qualities to American equipment. However, many CROWS users have mixed feelings about the system, because they know that you have more awareness of your surroundings if you are actually standing with your head and shoulders outside the vehicle, manning a machine-gun. For this reason, RWS manufacturers are investigating adding more sensors (for things like sound, smell and wind direction.) But the biggest improvements have been more reliability, ease-of-use, more sensors and lower costs.

 

 

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