Gun-toting robot still in training

Robots that shoot are coming, but more testing needs to be done before they can roll onto the battlefield. Photos: Gun-toting bots

The U.S. Army has delayed deployment of a robot equipped with a machine gun, a slight setback in the march of robots into war.

The Talon Sword, an autonomous vehicle with a machine gun (or rocket launcher) mounted on top that soldiers can fire from a remote location, was supposed to be deployed in live situations in Iraq by April. The robot, however, required some adjustments, according to Bob Quinn, spokesman for the manufacturer Foster-Miller. The adjustments have been made, but the Army is currently conducting further testing.


"The system is undergoing a final safety release for combat operations by the Army," Quinn wrote in an e-mail. "They will appear in combat when they appear. More specific timelines will not be made public. The ability of a soldier to maneuver and fire his weapon remotely off a robotic vehicle is just a matter of time."

Various branches of the armed services have already deployed robots in battlefield situations, but mostly to conduct reconnaissance. The PackBot from iRobot, for instance, crawled into caves in Afghanistan to seek out Taliban fighters. In Iraq, robots equipped with chemical sensors get sent into sensitive areas in advance of troops.

The Defense Department wants a third of all battle vehicles--a definition that encompasses ground vehicles, flying drones and helicopters, to be unmanned by 2010.

The Talon Sword differs from those currently in use in that it could be used as an offensive weapon. The vehicle itself is autonomous. Humans, however, aim the machine gun through remote cameras and have complete control over the shooting mechanism.

In the future, robots may be equipped with features such as stun- guns or plasma guns that will detain, but not necessarily kill, potential enemies. Using a robot, rather than a human, for dangerous and violent encounters gives the military far more options, opined iRobot CEO Colin Angle in a recent interview.

"The reason why today they are not used is because an M-16 works better. It's my life and he's got an AK-47," Angle said. "If we've got the robot, there is a different risk profile. Its true value is decreasing the battlefield fog."

Foster-Miller has marketed the Talon for various purposes for five years. The vehicle weighs about 80 pounds, travels at 5.2 mph 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. It was also employed during the cleanup of New York's World Trade Center in 2001.

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