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Gun-toting robots on patrol

The Talon has proved its mettle as a bomb-disposal bot. Now the 3rd Infantry Division is taking it to the streets of Iraq with a machine gun attached.

Weaponized Talon
The Talon, locked and loaded.

Does the right to bear arms also apply to robots?

That's no longer a question for idle speculation. And the answer appears to be a quiet but distinct yes.

These aren't autonomous robots, of course (so begone, you Terminator nightmares, at least for now). They're standard-issue remote-controlled machines like Foster-Miller's low-to-the-ground Talon, which has been put to good use in dangerous places for less-aggressive duties such as finding and neutralizing roadside bombs. That means a human operator well versed in the rules of engagement would make the actual decision on whether to shoot.

But their use as a weapons platform is only just beginning, so we've yet to see how well they perform and under what circumstances, and it could soon enough become more widespread. For instance, Foster-Miller parent Qinetiq this week is showing off a weaponized Talon at the DSEi (Defence Systems and Equipment International Exhibition) event in London. Military units can equip the so-called SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Direct-action System) variant with an M240 or M249 machine gun, a Barrett .50-caliber rifle, a 40mm grenade launcher or an M202 antitank rocket system, Qinetiq says.

A trio of M249-equipped Talons is already on deployment with the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq. (That compares with hundreds of bomb-disposal Talons.) In-country since April, they were formally approved for combat use in June, according to National Defense, which first reported on the use last month. Some 80 more could eventually be on the way, if funding comes through, the magazine reported.

Talon control unit
The Talon is driven by joystick from a briefcase-size control unit. Sgt. Lorie Jewell/U.S. Army

Qinetiq says the weaponized systems are being evaluated by "other nations" as well.

The Defense Department had hoped to have the gun-toting Talons in Iraq a couple years ago, according to an Army News Service story from December 2004. That account also said that in testing, the system could hit a bull's-eye from 2,000 meters, though it was understandably less accurate when on the move. At that time, each unit had cost about $230,000 to produce, and estimates were that the figure would drop 20 percent to 30 percent when the robots went into production.

Not long before that article appeared, Time magazine had designated the weaponized device as one of the "coolest inventions" of 2004.

The 200-pound robot can move at up to 5.5 miles per hour, and its battery has a 4-hour run time.