Bill Smart is an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. With his Ph.D. student Doug Few, he is working on the next generation of military robotics. The U.S. military has apparently set the year 2020 as the goal for having 30% of the Army composed of robotic forces.
Neither the researchers nor the military envisions squadrons of combat-ready “clones and drones” a la Star Wars or Isaac Asimov. Rather, Professor Smart explains, they are talking about “self-driving trucks,” bomb-sniffers and other support systems that are more accurately referred to as “autonomous systems rather than robots.”
Rosie the Robot Maid A number of different technologies converge in the design and development of robotic military systems. Night-vision “eyes,” ultrasensitive microphone “ears” and other sensors picking up sound, heat signatures and even smells transmit back to an operator in a remote location. With a computer, a screen or two, and a joystick, the soldier at the controls has a high-tech scout, bomb squad, cargo carrier and intelligence gatherer all in one.
When he thinks of “the future of robots,” says Ph.D. candidate Few, it is always about “the Jetsons. George Jetson never sat down at a computer to task Rosie to clean the house. Somehow they had this local exchange of information. So what we’ve been working on is how we can use the local environment rather than a computer as a tasking medium to the robot.”
The Packbot from iRobot Corporation is a far cry from Rosie the Robot Maid, in onboard intelligence and dexterity, but is already seeing duty in both Afghanistan and Iraq, delivering materiel and transporting gear in hazardous terrain. As the technology continues to progress, more robots are being deployed earlier in situations considered, at least initially, too dangerous for humans. “When I stood there and looked at [a battle-damaged Packbot], I realized that if that robot hadn’t been there, it would have been some kid,” Few says. Civilian applications Police departments are quick to press into service any military technology that they can get their hands on. In fact, the “militarization” of American law enforcement, which has been gaining steam for at least several decades, has not been an unqualified success in everyone’s eyes.
In the summer of 2007, Radley Balko, a senior editor for Reason magazine, testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime. “Since the late 1980s,” he told the assemblage, “thanks to acts passed by the U.S. Congress, millions of pieces of surplus military equipment have been given to local police departments across the country. We’re not talking just about computers and office equipment. Military-grade semi-automatic weapons, armored personnel vehicles, tanks, helicopters, airplanes, and all manner of other equipment designed for use on the battlefield is now being used on American streets, against American citizens.”
Bomb-squad robots, with technology field-tested in the world’s numerous military hotspots, have already made their way into many large urban police forces. As the technology progresses, Packbots and other special-purpose military robots will also join the local ranks of American law enforcement. “Academic criminologists,” Balko added, “credit these transfers with the dramatic rise in paramilitary SWAT teams over the last quarter century.”
Private use proliferates One can see the increase in SWAT raids as a good thing or bad, depending on one’s views on law enforcement, subsidiarity, civil rights and other political hot-potato issues. However, much less controversial is the application of military-tested technologies, including robotics, to private ends, such as security and self-defense.
ActivMedia Robotics of Peterborough, NH, manufactures a number of “security robots.” PatrolBot and similar mobile sensing and surveillance systems function as back-ups to other, fixed systems, while providing additional, supplemental data, too. In many cases, PatrolBot can deploy sensors that are either too rarely used or too costly to install in permanent locations around a facility.
Facilities managers at a Hewlett-Packard server facility need a 3-D thermal map of the building space, for example. If they install temperature sensors all over the building, it could interfere with people’s mobility, so PatrolBot carries a sensor-laden pole to map the temperature in the facility at specified intervals. An added advantage of robots, in these sorts of settings, is that they operate autonomously, make retrofitting the facilities unnecessary and can handle various emergencies without endangering people.
On patrol Roanoke, VA-based Cybermotion manufactures the Cyberguard line, originally introduced in the mid-1990s. The units can be equipped with various sensors – environmental, infra-red, thermal, etc. – and an array of cameras that relay real-time video by radio or Wi-Fi back to a central command location.
Operators can control the camera’s pan, tilt and zoom functions remotely, and for archival purposes a continuous or time-lapse video can be recorded to a hard drive aboard the robotic vehicle as well as at the control station. Independently saved copies will ensure that damage done to the Cyberguard, whether intentional or accidental, will not destroy any evidence collected to that point.
Security robots featuring real-time, color video and other Jetson-era capabilities are not “the wave of the future,” but are here and available now. Various types of these robots, while still innovative new tools for large area security and other specialized military and law-enforcement operations, are not considered a “fix all” item or “magic bullet,” by any means.
Ready for prime time? ActivMedia’s marketing materials position their growing family of “bots” as components of a “robust security solution,” allowing businesses and, increasingly, homeowners to improve the odds of dealing successfully with any “unexpected hazard.” With the price of a standard PatrolBot falling from $40,000 to a bit over half that since 2002, more and more small businesses and large homesteads can consider budgeting for such devices.
Adding mobile video surveillance will not guarantee an improvement to every security system, but in the right places, these robots can make all the difference. There is a serious cost-benefit analysis to perform before writing out a check for one of these units, and there are ongoing costs of operation, certainly, from various parts that will wear out (wheels, gears, levers, etc.), batteries that need to be charged, control equipment that will need redundancy and so forth.
The next frontier For savvy businesspeople, especially those with large physical plants and extensive perimeters, mobile surveillance cameras with some onboard brains might be a smart investment. Others who are less savvy, but are dyed-in-the-wool technophiles, may talk themselves into a PackBot or Cyberguard purchase just because they are early adopters – or want to see if they can control the robot with an iPhone or some other gadget.
Now the military and its “preferred providers” are hard at work at arming the robots for battle. It is not likely we will see much of this new technology trickling down into business- and consumer-level products, at least not soon. Project the trends out a few decades, though, and it’s not hard to imagine Rosie trading in her maid’s apron for a badge and gun. Rosie the Robot Cop? Watch out, George!