Robotic, or at least remotely controlled, soldiers are seeing a lot of action in Iraq. There are over 150 of these UGVs (Uninhabited Ground Vehicles) being used over there. Many different models are in action, including 10 Matildas, 22 Packbots, 58 Vanguards, 43 Talons and 20 Mini-Andros. All weigh under 200 pounds, most are a hundred pounds or less. All of them look like miniature tanks, but with an extendable arm in place of a turret. All are equipped with video cameras and the arm can pick things up. The primary use of the UGVs is checking out suspected roadside bombs. In this role, the UGVs have been very successful, with at least one of them getting destroyed when the bomb being investigated went off. The UGVs are usually controlled by an operator with a laptop computer and a wireless link, although most UGVs can also operate via a cable. The UGVs are battery operated, and can operate for two hours or so on a recharge or fresh battery. Speed is rarely more than 3-4 meters a second and the operator can usually be several hundred meters away (depending on whether the droid is operating outside, or within a building or cave.)
The army has five different models in Iraq because there is no one manufacturer who can build enough to meet army needs. The UGVs were originally designed and built with police and fire department bomb squads in mind. The army is going to pick one or two of the current UGVs to be the interim MTRS (Man-Transportable Robotic System). The army has been working on a MTRS for a few years, but the need for the UGVs in Afghanistan and Iraq has forced them to grab whatever commercial stuff they could get in order to deal with immediate needs. The bots are very useful in Afghanistan for exploring caves. There they are fitted with a spotlight, as there is often no light at all to allow the usual night vision devices to work. A thermal imaging camera is also being fitted to UGVs for these operations, so the UGV can operate in a dark cave without giving its position away to an armed foe.
The army had always planned to have small, lightweight (closer to 50 pounds than 200) UGVs for combat use. In addition to dealing with bombs and booby traps, the army plans to have them sent into buildings, or up stairs, to check for the presence of enemy troops as well. Ultimately, the army wants a UGV small enough, and rugged enough, that troops could toss one through a window, have it right itself and start looking around. This implies a hand held control device (with perhaps an eyeglass type display for seeing what the droid sees). Such technology is available now, its just a matter of putting it together and getting it into the field. The leading contender to be the armys official MTRS is the PackBot Scout. This 40 pound unit is designed to be carried in a soldiers pack, thrown through windows and operate under (six foot or so of) water. The PackBot has a built in computing power equal to a low end PC and is simple to learn how to use. Another version of the PackBot (the OED) weighs only 25 pounds. The PackBots are controlled via a custom device that looks like a video game controller, except that it has a small 1024x768 pixel LCD display. The same company that builds PackBot also makes a civilian appliance; the Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner.
The next challenge will be true battle robots, that will operate entirely on their own. Such autonomous weapons have been around for some time. There are several models of naval torpedoes that use rather complex software systems and sensors to find and destroy targets. Same with some naval mines. Cruise missiles operate the same way, as do some air-to-air missiles. But turning loose armed UGVs to operate on their own seems to frighten people more than missiles or torpedoes. And the fears probably pre-date the Terminator movies. But the era of combat robots is upon us, like it or not.