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U.S. military expands robot patrols in combat zones

Since conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began about five years ago, the number of unmanned machines on the ground and in the air has grown manifold.

WASHINGTON--We tend to hear more about the growing number of human bodies being shipped off to combat to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the U.S. Army is also dispatching more and more robots.

This ground-based robot, on display by the U.S. Army at an unmanned systems symposium this week, was battered recently when it detected an IED in Iraq. Military officials want robots, not humans, doing more of that dirty work. Anne Broache

Since the conflicts began five years ago, the military branch has been steadily stepping up deployment of both unmanned ground and aerial vehicles, Col. John Burke, the Army's director of unmanned systems integration, said Wednesday.

Burke, who was speaking at the second day of a confab here hosted by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, touted the machines' surveillance capabilities as a proven success, at times, in keeping live soldiers out of harm's way.

On the airborne side, four systems--the Raven, the Shadow, the Hunter and the Sky Warrior--have logged more than 270,000 hours during Operation Iraqi Freedom. When that operation first started, "you could measure the (use of) unmanned aircraft systems in maybe tens of hours a day," Burke said. By 2005, that number had climbed to about 100 hours per day, and now that figure has reached about 500 hours per day, he said.

Only 180 robots were on the ground in 2004, but that number had grown tenfold by the next year. Now, more than 5,000 are in the theater.

Expect that trend to continue in the future, Burke said, although he noted that the Army believes it's necessary to integrate both manned and unmanned techniques. Thanks to the ready availability of "storage in the terabytes," the Army is also counting on arming soldiers with a heightened amount of "real-time, multidimensional" data gleaned from various kinds of UAV sensors about their surroundings. A commander, for instance, could pull up archived information about what has transpired at a particular road intersection in the past week and ideally use it to help establish patterns.

The unmanned activity, to be sure, isn't limited to the Army. The Air Force has also come to consider a flying machine called MQ-1 Predator a mainstay of its operations in the theater, with more than 250,000 flying hours logged since it first came into use in 1994. A higher-end aerial drone called the Global Hawk is also flying daily missions in Iraq, according to Lt. Gen. Donald J. Hoffman, an official in the Air Force's acquisition office, who also spoke at this week's symposium.