The U.S. Army is serious about autonomy. In late March, the service released a Robotics Strategy white paper, a collaboration between the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) and the Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC). It asks a lot of questions, but one of the most interesting is: what degree of autonomy are humans willing to delegate to “smart” robotics systems?
Army robots, for the most part, are either unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) or unmanned aerial systems (UAS). All of these units are controlled by a human operator. According to the Robotics Strategy, about 3,000 UGVs were used in combat over the last year in Iraq and Afghanistan. “In the near- and mid-term, it is anticipated that robots will continue to operate under some human control,” the strategy reads. “However, as technology progresses, robots will require less human interaction and will be capable of higher levels of autonomy and independent operation.”
There are several limiting facts to increasing robot autonomy, including the reliability of a system and the complexity of the task. Until higher-level algorithms and technology can be attained to navigate more complex and sophisticated environments, humans will continue to stay in the loop.
Congress has been promoting the use of robotics as well. In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 01, numerous goals were established, including:
1. By 2010, one-third of operational deep strike aircraft should be unmanned,
2. By 2015, one-third of the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) operational combat vehicles should be unmanned.
The current Army budget provides for $54 million per year in applied research and technology for unmanned vehicle technology. With FCS, the Army is developing the first major program that will eventually integrate unmanned ground and aerial systems. Depending of course on what remains of the FCS after the budget process, FCS Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) organization design is supposed to include 192 unmanned systems.
The Army’s Robotic Strategy warns robots will not usher in “an age of ‘bloodless, push-button warfare, nor provide ‘silver-bullet’ solutions to every challenge the Army will face in the future.” The hope is to use robotics to supplement soldiers and provide them an edge (in awareness, fire power and even logistics) in combat.