Army to deploy robots that shoot

Talon robots moving from taking pictures to wielding machine gun. People, though, will control where it goes and what is shoots. Photo: Combat-ready robots

Next year, the U.S. Army will give robots machine guns, although humans will firmly be in control of them.

The Army next March will begin to deploy Talon robots from Waltham, Mass.-based Foster-Miller. The robots will be mounted with M240 or M249 machine guns, said a Foster-Miller spokesman. The units also can be mounted with a rocket launcher. Defense agencies have been testing an armed version of the Talon since 2003.

Putting guns on robotic vehicles is a natural evolution of the technology, which is being adopted to decrease risks to personnel in the field, the company said. Several robots, including the Talon and the PackBot from iRobot, have been used to conduct surveillance missions such as taking pictures inside the caves of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, during the conflict. Other robots have been mounted with "distruptors," guns that disable bombs and mines.

A robot coming next year from John Deere and iRobot will ferry supplies to and from the front, navigating its travels with little human input.

A robotic vehicle with a machine gun will essentially enable soldiers to stay in a safe area while attacking an enemy.

Unlike most robots, the machine gun-mounted Talon won't be autonomous. People will guide it via radio commands or fiber networks and then have full control over the gun.

"Driving, observing and shooting are always done with a man in the loop," the Foster-Miller spokesman said. "The labs like autonomy, but the users themselves always like to have control."

The Talon weighs about 80 pounds, travels at 5.2 miles per hour and can go about 20 miles on a battery charge. In "wake up" mode, in which the unit conducts surveillance but remains mostly dormant, a battery charge can last about a week. The Talon was used in Bosnia to dispose of grenades and during the cleanup of the World Trade Center.

The company has received more than $65 million in orders from various defense agencies.

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