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Good news! The robot army we all know will one day take over the world and enslave the human race isn’t ready for global domination just yet. In fact, listening to Pentagon botheads talk, it appears that military leaders aren't even quite sure what to do with the autonomous unmanned vehicles they're developing.Speaking at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) symposium in Washington today, the Army’s chief scientist Dr. Scott Fish said that while “demonstrations have abounded” over the past half decade, the U.S. Army still isn’t close to fielding a real autonomous robot. Fish says that he has spoken to leaders across the service and “they don’t know when it is we can deliver” what he calls “serious autonomy.” He said that the Army needs to do a cost/benefit analysis of how much robots cost, what it would take to train soldiers to use and repair them, and how many the service thinks it needs--and to what end--before it can move forward. In essence, the Army needs to start from the beginning. “We need to go back and look at what we want to do autonomously” he said, adding that strategically, “we’ve got to change what we’re doing; it’s not working.”Now, this isn’t to say that the Pentagon has failed in its quest to develop and field autonomous unmanned vehicles, but Fish added a much needed note of realism to all of the happy talk about unmanned systems. The UAVs and explosives disposal bots being used in Iraq and Afghanistan, let’s not forget, are hardly unmanned. There is at least one soldier, sailor, airman, marine or contractor operating each one. Putting autonomy into those platforms is a different science altogether, involving complicated issues of safety and programming to allow them to operate independently in a variety of unfamiliar environments.Right now, as TARDEC's senior research scientist Jim Overholt said during his talk, the unmanned systems in use are mission “enablers,” as opposed to partners. “We need to go through a social and cultural change” in the military, Overholt said, to get to the point where these systems can act not only as gear that allows a safe stand-off distance for their human operators, but can perform missions themselves, allowing soldiers to focus elsewhere. We’re not there yet, and the talks at AUVSI today show that we’re probably not even all that close.Pic: US Army
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