Infantry: The Cylons Among Us


October 8, 2007: Last Summer, the U.S. Army sent three armed robots to Iraq, where they were handed over to the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division. No reports on how those three Swords (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detecting System) droids have done. But the commander of the 3rd Brigade has asked for twenty more. The army already has 80 more on order.

It took several years of effort for robot manufacturer, Foster-Miller, to convince the Department of Defense to send three of its armed (with a 5.56mm machine-guns and 350 rounds of ammo) Talon robots to Iraq, for more realistic testing. The Talon IIIB, also known as Swords, will be used as a 125 pound armed sentry, not a combat droid. Or so the official announcement went. So far, the tests appear to have been successful.

Swords can also be armed with a 7.62mm machine-gun (and 300 rounds of ammo), a .50 caliber sniper rifle or a 40mm automatic grenade launcher. Swords cost $200,000 each, although if over 100 are manufactured, the price will be cut in half. Part of the high cost comes from the addition weapons safety systems installed, and tested. Swords can now defend itself, or be sent into a particularly dangerous location to kill or wound enemy troops.

The army is nervous about Swords because of the general fear of armed robots. But Swords, and the other 8,000 ground "robots" and UAVs over there are not true robots. That is, they are not autonomous. All these "robots" are remote control devices, like radio-controlled vehicles and aircraft sold as toys. This fear, that human creations will turn on their makers, is an ancient one, and is exploited expertly by the media in movies like Terminator, TV shows like Battlestar Galactica and books like Frankenstein.

The fact is, we have had combat robots out there for over a century. The torpedo was invented back in the 1870s, and became quite a smart killer during World War II (when it learned to home in on sound). Land and naval mines also got a lot smarter by the middle of the 20th century. And, autonomous capabilities are being added to ground robots, and UAVs have had such abilities for years.

Landmines have been outlawed, or at least a treaty has been signed and ignored. But naval very smart naval mines and torpedoes are still in play. Same with lots of very clever missiles. But it's the land based robots that scare us the most. The Swords droid can be pretty scary, especially at night. The device looks like a miniature tank, with an M-16 and a little camera mast mounted on it. In an unfriendly, and unlit, Baghdad neighborhood, anyone seeing a Swords moving slowly down the street, making those electrical motor noises, and pointing the M-16 here and there, is inclined to get a little nervous. But that's the point. Troops want to send Swords down those streets, to force the enemy to fire and give away their position. Swords don't bleed, troops do. An unarmed robot is less scary to the enemy, which is inclined to let such a harmless critter poke around. But Swords will not only find you, it can kill you, especially if you happen to be holding an AK-47. Worse yet, Swords can call out in Arabic and demand that you surrender. Most Iraqis are pretty superstitious, and in awe of American technology. Swords is a nightmare come true. But the Iraqi terrorists are also pretty clever. They will soon learn how best to deal with Swords. But in the meantime, the 3rd Brigade would like twenty more, quickly, before the Iraqis catch on. And that's probably why there have been no public reports about what the troops have done with Swords.


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