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Attack of the Killer Robots: Pentagon Plans to Deploy Autonomous Robots in War Zones

The Pentagon's dream of a techno army will -- and should -- fail.

One of the most captivating storylines in science fiction involves a nightmarish vision of the future in which autonomous killer robots turn on their creators and threaten the extinction of the human race. Hollywood blockbusters such as Terminator and The Matrix are versions of this cautionary tale, as was R.U.R. ( Rossum's Universal Robots ), the 1920 Czech play by Karel Capek that marked the first use of the word "robot."

In May 2007, the U.S. military reached an ominous milestone in the history of warfare -- one that took an eerie step toward making this fiction a reality. After more than three years of development, the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division based south of Baghdad, deployed armed ground robots.

Although only three of these weaponized "unmanned systems" have hit Iraq's streets, to date, National Defense magazine reported in September 2007 that the Army has placed an order for another 80.

A month after the robots arrived in Iraq, they received "urgent material release approval" to allow their use by soldiers in the field. The military, however, appears to be proceeding with caution.

According to a statement by Duane Gotvald, deputy project manager of the Defense Department's Robotic Systems Joint Project Office, soldiers are using the robots "for surveillance and peacekeeping/guard operations" in Iraq. By all accounts, robots have not fired their weapons in combat since their deployment more than a year and a half ago.

But it is only a matter of time before that line is crossed.

Future Fighting Force?

For many in the military-industrial complex, this technological revolution could not come soon enough.

Robots' strategic impact on the battlefield, however -- along with the moral and ethical implications of their use in war -- have yet to be debated.

Designed by Massachusetts-based defense contractor Foster-Miller, the Special Weapons Observation Remote Direct-Action System, or SWORDS, stands three feet tall and rolls on two tank treads.

It is similar to the company's popular TALON bomb disposal robot -- which the U.S. military has used on more than 20,000 missions since 2000 -- except, unlike TALON, SWORDS has a weapons platform fixed to its chassis.

Currently fitted with an M249 machine gun that fires 750 rounds per minute, the robot can accommodate other powerful weapons, including a 40 mm grenade launcher or an M202 rocket launcher.

Five cameras enable an operator to control SWORDS from up to 800 meters away with a modified laptop and two joysticks. The control unit also has a special "kill button" that turns the robot off should it malfunction. (During testing, it had the nasty habit of spinning out of control.)

Developed on a shoestring budget of about $4.5 million, SWORDS is a primitive robot that gives us but a glimpse of things to come. Future models -- including several prototypes being tested by the military -- promise to be more sophisticated.

Congress has been a steady backer of this budding industry, which has a long-term vision for technological transformation of the armed forces.

In 2001, the Defense Authorization Act directed the Pentagon to "aggressively develop and field" robotic systems in an effort to reach the ambitious goal of having one-third of the deep strike aircraft unmanned within 10 years, and one-third of the ground combat vehicles unmanned within 15 years.

To make this a reality, federal funding for military robotics has skyrocketed. From fiscal year 2006 through 2012, the government will spend an estimated $1.7 billion on research for ground-based robots, according to the congressionally funded National Center for Defense Robotics. This triples what was allocated annually for such projects as recently as 2004.

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