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Dispatch #5: Tiny Robots Are the Future Warrior's Best Friends

Tuesday, May 29, 2012 11:00:00

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For millennia, man’s best friend has accompanied soldiers into combat. Combat-trained dogs attack and defend, sniff for enemy infiltrators and explosives, and even help find wounded allies trapped under debris. In the years to come, circuits and machinery could replace fur, fangs, and muscle on the front lines. Tiny intelligent robots are the future warrior’s new best friends.

The first ground robots from World War II were bulky, “dumb” machines the size of refrigerators, connected to their human operators by lengthy cables and were steered using heavy, unwieldy controllers. In the early years of the 21st century, radio signals replaced the wires and handheld smartphones and tablets replaced the controllers. Meanwhile, combat ground robots got smaller and smaller, with better sensors and more intelligent computer brains capable of making many tactical decisions on their own.

The most advanced soldier-bots fit in the palm of your hand and can be hurled like baseballs over walls, down alleyways, and into windows. They roll around and stream live video back to their operators, giving their human comrades a preview of the obstacles and enemies up ahead.

Tiny bots like these are a vital part of a player’s arsenal in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier™. Just don’t count on the automatons doing any actual fighting – in the game, or in the real world. “We aren’t likely to see robots pulling the triggers for themselves in the near future for sure, even with sentry units,” Authenticity Coordinator Travis Getz says. “In my view, that’s a good thing.”

The Israelis were the first to use throwable robots in battle. In 2005, a small tech firm called ODF Optronics Ltd. unveiled its $5,000 EyeBall™: softball-size robot with several camera lenses embedded on its surface. No matter how it landed, one EyeBall camera would point up at the enemy... With enough of the tiny machine, “you can have a platoon operating in a village with hundreds of sensors per square kilometer,” said ODF Optronics exec Yosi Wolf.

Israel Defense Forces were impressed, and by 2009, the EyeBall was seeing daily use in training and in combat. Some soldiers complained, however. “Oftentimes, the EyeBall, when thrown, lands behind a piece of furniture in the room, like a couch or a bed, and can’t see anything,” an officer said. “In addition, the very act of throwing something into a room before sweeping it erases any tactical surprise.”

One solution was a throwable bot that could be tossed some distance away from the enemy and quietly roll toward them. The mobile Recon Scout®, built by ReconRobotics in Minnesota, is the size and shape of a 2.5-pound dumbbell where the “weights” are wheels and a camera is installed in the “bar” (actually an axle)! The Recon Scout, priced at $10,000, can roll up to 300 feet away from its operator.

Police and commandos bought the first Recon Scout. In 2011, the Army and Marines placed an urgent order for up to 5,000 throw-bots for use in Afghanistan. Robot makers envisioned a future where tiny robots are as numerous as people on the battlefield. “We can provide this capability to every soldier,” one official said.

That’s certainly the case in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Every US Ghost or Russian Bodark commando has access to small robots based on actual systems. “Some of us have driven real-life unmanned systems,” Getz says.

The information tiny robots provide their human masters help soldiers choose the most tactical approach to a dangerous situation. Sometimes that means subduing a suspected enemy without killing him…the subject of our next dispatch.



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