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Interview: The man who makes killer robots for the US military

For decades, the US military has been building an army of the smartest and deadliest robots on the planet. We were invited to its San Diego labs to witness the future of robotic warfare

Gadgets

It sounds like the opening scene of a Terminator movie: a team of intelligent air, land and sea robots working together to hunt down a group of human soldiers. Detected by infrared sensors mounted on a cyber-jetski, the platoon is forced to take shelter in a beach bunker. Stealthy flying drones then co-ordinate an attack, flushing the panicked warriors right into the arms of a pair of tracked and armed ground robots. Game over, man.

This isn't some far-flung, fictional future, but a genuine exercise that pitted real soldiers against real robots designed by the US military's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Centre -- Spawar for short. For decades, Spawar has been quietly building up an army of autonomous robots that are among the smartest and deadliest on the planet, and we were lucky enough to be invited to its San Diego labs to witness the future of robotic warfare firsthand.

spywar robots

We're sick of telling them what to do

While the US military currently has over 6,000 surveillance or bomb-disposal robots in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost all are remotely controlled by human operators. "Soldiers have been teleoperating robots on the battlefield for a couple of years -- and they're sick of it," says Spawar's technical director for robotics, Bart Everett. "They see the robots as a big asset in saving lives, but the control systems are a liability. They're heavy, as big as suitcases, and when soldiers bury themselves inside, they lose all sense of what's going on around them -- very dangerous in a battlefield environment."

Spawar has always been focused on creating robots that don't need hand-holding. Thirty years ago, Everett designed a security robot that can outperform anything consumers can buy today. Like Dr Frankenstein, Everett named his artificial companion after himself. "Back in 1980, the RoBart could spot intruders, detect fire, smoke or flooding and return to its charger, all without any human intervention," says Everett. "That evolved into a next-gen version that was significantly more complex and now we have robots that can operate 24/7, indoors or out, with almost no human input."

The latest autonomous military robots have been designed to work alongside humans. They're modestly sized tracked robots that can be packed into a backpack, then deployed to explore strange new buildings, bunkers and tunnels. Festooned with thermal, infrared and zoom cameras, these disposable spy-bots automatically build up a complete map to take back to their controllers. "If they lose comms, they don't care," says Everett. "Once they've done their map, they come back. They also have payloads to detect radiation, explosives, tripwires, toxic gases, all kinds of things."

What's that, Robbie? He's stuck down a well?

When the robot returns, it feeds back a map overlaid with clickable icons for more information -- and then the robot leads the human back to what it found. "It's layered to the point where you can say 'I only care about the hostages. Show me only the human presence'," says Everett. That's right -- controlling Spawar's latest droids doesn't mean moving a mouse over a pad or waving a joystick. "Our robots understand English. You can just say 'Enter the door in front of you and search the building'."

And this is only the start of Spawar's work. It has autonomous ro-boats that can navigate the high seas, avoiding other ships and capturing rock-solid video, however rough the waves. It has a tank-like robot that can launch (and recover) a miniature robot helicopter, a machine gun-armed robotic dune buggy and even a robot based on a Segway.

Mad science aside, though, Spawar's ultimate aim is to develop a full range of robots that can fight directly alongside human soldiers. "In the long term, our goal is to have what we call a warfighter's associate -- a robot that operates with a human like a police dog with a police officer," says Everett. "The human has to really trust that robot now. If you walk into an ambush, even voice control is not good enough as you don't have time to tell the robot what to do. The robot has to figure out how to help you or get out of your way."

Your stress levels are suboptimal, human

"We've coined the term 'artificial empathy' to describe the work we're doing here, because we haven't seen it done before. Of course, reading body language is very difficult -- even for humans. So we eavesdrop on the information that already describes the human and his weapon, sent back to the company commander to monitor the soldier and his health."

Everett is referring to the multi-billion dollar Future Force Warrior project, dedicated to bringing advanced technologies such as virtual-reality headsets, electronic guns and ultimately exoskeleton armour to US soldiers. Some of the first systems to be rolled out will be sensors that monitor every aspect of a soldier's physical state, from his heartbeat, respiration and stress levels to his precise location and even how much ammunition he's carrying. "The robot combines this with all the data on the environment from its own sensors, and then acts upon that. We have elements of this working in the lab," says Everett.

Does this mean the 6,000 robots currently in service are just so much walking (or rolling) scrap? Far from it, according to Everett, who has also come up with a way to turn bomb-disposal bots into high-tech cartographers. "These robots can capture images at 30 or 60 frames a second and today we're just throwing all that information away. But what if you stitched together all these disparate images from 6,000 robots into a 3D model at 30fps? Eventually, you'd have a model of the whole town and it would be very high fidelity." He shows us a composite 3D image built up from just a few hundred photos -- and it already looks as good as most CG architectural renderings.

At some point, we left the present and entered the future

"Imagine if you've got a robot taking pictures day after day after day, plus you're going into that building and creating a model of the inside. Over time, our objective is to create high-fidelity models so that you could enter this building from the Pentagon and artificially explore it like playing a video game," enthuses Everett. "If something changes, the software can detect that, too. If there's something in this corner that wasn't there yesterday, is it an IED or a weapons cache? The robot can literally go over there and explore it -- without being asked to."

Mind-reading cyborgs. Voice-controlled robots with pixel-perfect 3D world maps. Packs of hunter-killer Terminators hunting down humans. Surely this is all still years away from facing the enemy? Not at all, says Everett. "We can now move things very quickly from concept to field use in a matter of months. We've already sent systems into theatre in one form or another." The rise of the RoBarts has already begun...

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