Military Robots The March of the Steel Soldiers

The United States armed forces have been using robots in Afghanistan and Iraq for some time now. Now the German military, the Bundeswehr, is testing similar robots on a training ground near the southern city of Würzburg.

Asendro sluggishly drags itself up the stairs until it stands in front of a closed door. Does the door conceal a bomb or a group of armed terrorists? It doesn't matter to Asendro, a fearless robot. It extends its arm, presses the door handle and opens the door into the unknown.

"Asendro" is part of the latest generation of guard and protection robots. Weighing in at only 40 kilograms (88 pounds), the diminutive robot looks something like a toy tank. With its arm, the device can open doors and, using its video eyes, investigate locations too inaccessible or dangerous for human scouts.

For weeks, Jens Hanke has been guiding his remote-controlled watchman with the aid of a sensor glove and a computer back and forth and up and down the hallways of Robowatch, a six-year-old company headquartered in Berlin. Hanke is often hard at work testing the robot late into the night and on weekends.

Asendro is scheduled for its first big mission this week at the Hammelburg military training ground north of Würzburg, where the Bundeswehr is hosting its four-day European Land Robot Exhibition (Elrob 2006), the first event of its kind in Europe. Thirty-three companies and 14 scientific organizations from nine European countries have registered for the event, where they will have the opportunity to show off their robots to a professional audience consisting of military, fire department and civil protection personnel.

The use of land-based robots represents new territory for the Bundeswehr. Although the German military has been using unmanned aircraft, or drones, for some 30 years, it has had little experience to date with robots on the ground. "Teodor" -- a bomb-defusing robot already being used by military and police personnel in 30 countries -- is currently the Bundeswehr's only steel recruit. In June 2003, the robot, manufactured by the firm Telerob at its plant near Stuttgart, briefly entered the spotlight when it was used to remove a bomb from the main train station in the eastern city of Dresden.

Robots are far more common among other military forces. When the US army encountered tough resistance from the Taliban in their Afghan cave networks, the troops first sent in "Packbot" robots to explore the corridors. The devices are made by iRobot, an American firm that first came to prominence with its "Roomba" robotic vacuum cleaner.

A new weapon in the arsenal

Robots are also frequently used to defuse mines and "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs. About one-third of the American casualties in Iraq to date have been victims of these weapons, which are usually triggered by motion sensors or activated remotely using a mobile phone. Remote-controlled reconnaissance robots and fully automated transport vehicles have recently helped reduce the risk.

Even more significantly, the Pentagon, in a show of strength, plans to develop a truly automated combat force in the coming years with its so-called Future Combat System. In addition to small reconnaissance robots (SUGVs), the system includes transport systems known as "Mules," which, like their namesake, will follow combat troops and carry their gear and ammunition. Even transport vehicles and combat tanks are expected to be remote-controlled in the future. The estimated costs of this armada of remote-control vehicles are immense and will likely range between $90 and 150 billion.

To speed up development, the military has been sponsoring increasingly spectacular competitions. The goal of last year's Grand Challenge, for example, was to drive a fully automated, unmanned vehicle across a 131-mile route through the Mojave Desert -- without remote controls. The winning team completed the course in just less than seven hours and walked away with $2 million in prize money.

Relatively modest by comparison, the Bundeswehr's Elrob event is not a contest in the traditional sense, nor does it offer any prize money. Entrants are not even likely to garner contracts in the foreseeable future, since the military currently has no established procurement budget for robotic devices. To add insult to injury, participants are even asked to pay for their own accommodations. This appears to have discouraged important participants, including defense contractor EADS, which decided to back out of the event.

A meeting of the robots

The Bundeswehr has also remained unclear about exactly what kinds of robots it's looking for. Its rules for the event vaguely state that one of the main goals of Elrob is the "development of revolutionary technologies." Another requirement is that the robotic vehicles must have "small animals on board."

Andreas Birk of the International University Bremen, whose team won the Robot Rescue League's US Open in Atlanta this April, says he was surprised by the vague responses he received to specific inquiries. Nevertheless, Birk plans to attend the event in Hammelburg -- if only to see what his counterparts in the industry are up to.

The participants in the Hammelburg event can take their pick between two obstacle courses. The first course consists of one kilometer of rugged terrain, including obstacles such as rocks and military equipment. The second course passes through about half a kilometer of Bonnland, a ghost town that has been used as a training facility for house-to-house combat since 1937. In Bonnland, the robots will have to find their way through barbed wire barriers, puddles, fires and rubble, force their way into buildings and find specific objects.

The general nature of these requirements is reflected in the diversity of participants. Besides the occasional track-laying vehicle, many of the devices in this colorful menagerie resemble "Herbie" the legendary unmanned robot car of Hollywood fame. Entrants include a converted Smart car named "Smarter," a Mercedes that was originally retrofitted for disabled drivers and caterpillar-like wheeled vehicles with segments that move independently, such as the French firm Robosoft's "Roburoc6."

One of the most amazing systems is "Satellite on the Move," a sort of remote-controlled buggy, developed by Bavarian firm Base Ten Systems and designed to travel thousands of kilometers. As a precaution, the rules state that each robot must come equipped with an emergency shutoff switch.

But the event is by no means limited just to professionals. Amateur tinkerers are also taking part, including four French engineers from Angers and their "Home Made Robot 2," a device one would expect to see at a toy convention instead of on a military training ground.

But toys aren't necessarily unusable, as the US military's experiences have shown. In Iraq, for example, soldiers have even used remote-controlled miniature cars from electronics discounter Radio Shack to protect themselves against explosive devices, driving the toy vehicles into boxes they spot on the road, for example. If the toy fails to move the box, they assume that it contains a heavier object and call in the mine clearing squad. If the box does move, they assume it's empty and keep going.

It's own worst enemy?

In many cases, says Hagen Schempf of Carnegie Mellon University, the perils of technology can pose a greater threat to military robots than the enemy. Schempf, who has been studying the issue for years, says that even a misplaced couch can make a hallway impassible for small reconnaissance robots. "Many European developers are theoretically coming up with state-of-the-art devices," he says, "but they often lack experience using the equipment under real conditions and in crisis zones."

It's for this reason that Schempf finds it all the more incomprehensible that only European teams are permitted to participate in the Bundeswehr's Elrob event. "Those interested in seeing what's out there should make sure their search is as broad as possible."

When asked about the goals of the event, the German Defense Ministry responded that "protecting soldiers in the field is a priority for the military." But this didn't address the question of how the Germans expect to find the best systems to protect their soldiers against explosive devices and snipers if they don't admit US companies, like iRobot, thereby eschewing the companies' valuable practical experiences with Iraq-tested devices like the "Packbot."

Many academics have their own reasons for treating the Bundeswehr's interest in their designs with a healthy dose of skepticism. "I find the military's interest in mobile robotics both amusing and sad," says Martin Proetzsch of the University of Kaiserslautern, whose team plans to deploy its all-wheel drive vehicle "Ravon" on the field obstacle course. Proetzsch would prefer to see his vehicle used to save lives. But where is the limit in this gray zone? Proetzsch, for example, is critical of the US military's efforts to equip robots with remote-controllable weapons. "I think it's irresponsible," says Proetzsch, "because those systems are still far too unreliable."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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