A string of 20-ton Army trucks barrels along a rural Georgia highway at 40 mph with no one at the wheel, yet the trucks obey traffic rules, swerve to avoid obstacles and stop when a child darts into the street.Two pilotless planes circle over a town, searching the streets below for their target. When they spot it, they radio GPS coordinates to a driverless SUV, which moves in for the intercept.A squad of soldiers crouches behind a protective wall a short distance from the building they’re about to storm. They unpack CLARK—the Common Light Autonomous Robotics Kit—pulling out a palm-size quadcopter with a surveillance camera and a small tank-like robot that rolls on treads and can climb stairs. These micro-robots will move in first to show soldiers what’s around the next corner and what’s in the next room. The soldiers will leave behind a small stationary sensor to monitor their egress route.Increasingly sophisticated robots are poised to take over some of the Army’s most dangerous, dull and dirty jobs. Already they search for buried roadside bombs, perform aerial reconnaissance and watch over base perimeters. Driverless convoys have passed increasingly complicated tests and are on the verge of being combat ready.The pilotless planes that teamed with the driverless SUV proved their capability at Fort Benning, Ga., in 2010. Meanwhile, the backpack collection of robots for CLARK is being assembled by the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC) at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., and the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning.Humans Will Still Have JobsThe Army envisions a future replete with robots, but don’t look for the “Terminator”-type humanoid killer robots so often hyped in headlines and portrayed in movies. Nor will there be any soldierless battlefields where robots fight it out among themselves, the Army’s top robotics experts say.Instead, the Army’s robots will serve more like modern-day hunting dogs and pack animals: They will provide sharper senses and stronger backs for their human masters. They won’t be making important decisions for themselves.“The Army is not looking to replace soldiers with robots,” said Col. Christ-opher Cross, research and development chief at ARCIC. “We are looking for ways to integrate autonomous systems” so they can extend the reach of soldiers and reduce the risks soldiers face.Paul Rogers, director of the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in Warren, Mich., agreed: Robots will “augment the performance and effectiveness” of soldiers, not replace them.That’s happening already. Cross estimated that 800 soldiers are alive today because robots instead of soldiers were sent to destroy improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan.What Can Robots Do?Reducing soldier casualties is the main motivation behind the driverless convoy. By 2020, and possibly sooner, “we believe we can take the soldier completely out of the trucks” that deliver water, food, fuel and ammunition to combat outposts, Rogers said. Army statistics indicate that one of every eight soldiers injured or killed in Iraq was aboard a supply convoy.The Army may also deliver supplies with unmanned helicopters. The Marine Corps experimented with that in Afghanistan, using robotic K-MAX helicopters to deliver ammunition, food and water to forward operating bases when it was too dangerous to send trucks or manned helicopters.By 2025, the Army expects to have robots that can operate in areas contaminated by chemical, biological or nuclear materials, Rogers said. Unmanned helicopters may deliver tracked or wheeled robots equipped with cameras and sensors to conduct reconnaissance and environmental sampling. The robots may even have arms to recover casualties from areas that are too hazardous for humans to enter.A decade after that, soldiers may be operating with a robotic “wingman,” Cross said.Under the wingman concept, robots are controlled by a human operator. Equipped with cameras, sensors and weapons ranging from machine guns to rockets, the robots would be sent into “very nonpermissive environments” while their human operators remain behind in relative safety, Rogers said.Larger robots are also anticipated. “A platoon today has four vehicles and all are manned,” Cross said. “In the future, a platoon could have eight vehicles—four manned and four unmanned.” He said the unmanned vehicles would have “similar lethality to a tank” or a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and could carry nonlethal weapons as well.Humans Remain in ControlNevertheless, the Army draws the line at building robots that could kill on their own.It’s fine to have a deadly robotic wingman, “but you’ve got to make sure you control it,” said Rickey Smith, director of the Information Integration Directorate at ARCIC. “There can be no decision to kill without a human in the loop.”That has been U.S. policy since 2012, when DoD issued Directive 3000.09, which states: “Autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.”The Army already employs thousands of robots. Most are controlled by soldiers using wired or wireless controllers. Some are semi-autonomous, meaning they can make some decisions for themselves, such as flying or driving from one predetermined point to another, or returning home when they complete a mission or when they lose contact with their controllers.Those decisions, however, have been programmed into the robots by their human operators. Even sophisticated robots like those in driverless convoys are acting on instructions programmed by humans when they steer around obstacles and brake for pedestrians.Autonomy at IssueRegarding true autonomy—when a robot is able to evaluate a situation and decide what to do about it—“we’ve got a long way to go” before that will be possible, Smith said. Also, it’s not clear that fully autonomous robots are desirable.“The notion that we just turn them all loose—I don’t see the United States ever saying we’re going to let the machine make all the decisions,” Smith said.Even the autonomous convoys raise difficult questions, he said. “What’s the operational benefit? What’s the tactical benefit? When a child gets run over, who’s going to be responsible—the person who programmed the convoy? The guy who built the sensor on the truck? There are still some policy issues we have to come to grips with.”In addition, adding robots to the ranks won’t necessarily reduce the number of human soldiers. The Air Force has discovered, for example, that it takes a crew of three to fly a Predator-like unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—pilot, sensor operator and mission coordinator—plus additional personnel to maintain, launch and land the remotely piloted aircraft.For the Army, in regard to replacing combat soldiers with robots—“I’ve not heard anyone suggest that,” said Michael Barnes of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. “Unmanned systems could actually increase number of soldiers needed.”Thus, the Army isn’t rushing to embrace robots.Proceeding CarefullyCaution prevailed in 2007, when the Army sent armed SWORDS—Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System—robots to Iraq for testing in a realistic combat environment.The 3-foot-high, roughly 100-pound robots traveled on tank-like treads and were able to climb stairs, surmount rock piles and crawl over barbed wire, according to their manufacturer, Foster-Miller, Inc. Armed with cameras and machine guns, the robots were controlled wirelessly by a soldier from as far as a half-mile away.When they got to Iraq, however, the SWORDS robots were forbidden to fire. The Army had imposed the no-shooting restriction after a 2005 incident in which a SWORDS robot moved without having been given a command, said Robert Testa, technical lead at the Remote Weapons Branch in the Army’s Armament Integration Division at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.The errant movement was traced to a loose wire in an operating control unit, Testa said. “At all times, the gun was in safe mode,” but the glitch left the Army still gun-shy two years later in Iraq.The SWORDS robots still proved useful in combat, Testa said. Using the robots’ cameras instead of their guns, soldiers “sent them down the road to look for bad guys.”The experimental SWORDS program was discontinued, but the Army benefitted from lessons learned, Testa said. “We incorporated a whole bunch of safety features,” including redundant wiring, into successor robots.The cautious approach to employing robots makes sense, Cross said. “We’re still truly in an experimental stage. It would be nice to take this capability and put it in the force,” but many questions remain unanswered.Advances Must Be MadeLiability matters aside, if using robots means fewer human casualties, would that make wars more likely? Will robots require a multitude of mechanics and communications specialists?“We don’t know,” Cross said. It will take “quite a bit of experimentation to understand” how robots are going to fit in. “It’s going to take time, and we have to be patient so we get it right.”But Robert Finkelstein, an expert on military robots and president of Robotic Technology Inc., thinks the Army is moving too slowly. “We need to get some of this stuff out in the field to get some actual experience with it,” he said. “My view is that the machines will be a lot better at this than people.”He contends that by 2035, it should be possible to have a battlefield with almost no human combatants. He envisions battles—conventional and asymmetric—being fought by thousands or even tens of thousands of robots.Unmanned ground vehicles, some the size of Humvees or bigger, would collaborate with unmanned aircraft to conduct reconnaissance, acquire targets and attack.UAVs may be the simpler part. Communicating with vehicles in the air “is relatively easy and there are not a lot of obstacles” for UAVs to run into, Finkelstein said. Operating on the ground presents more challenges. There are lots of obstacles, terrain can be difficult and there are line-of-sight problems that make communication harder. Ground robots “would have to have a higher level of autonomy,” he said—but not too much.Finkelstein agreed that humans must remain in control of military robots. “Humans would have to tell ground vehicles to fire or not,” he said, but he and others stress the advantages of robots: They’re unafraid of death, they obey orders, they don’t need sleep, food or pay, and no one mourns when a robot is destroyed.Technology is not the main impediment to building a much more robotic military, Finkelstein said. “We could do it right now with current technology, but we need to have the motivation to do it,” he said. “It took decades for UAVs to be appreciated by the military. The ground stuff is pretty much where UAVs were 20 years ago.”Finkelstein attributed the Army’s slow embrace of robots less to caution than to “normal inertia” and “rice-bowl issues” such as who in the Army gets more of the budget and who controls the programs.Robots are coming nonetheless, he said. “Whether the military wants it or not, by 2020 there will be the commercial advent of the driverless car. That will be disruptive and transformative technology. What will stop militants from getting it? What will stop them from weaponizing autonomous vehicles? Then they won’t need true believers who are willing to blow themselves up,” Finkelstein said.Will the Army need a robot to respond to that?_______________________________________________________________________________Military Robots: Future PossibilitiesToday’s robots disarm roadside bombs, keep watch over combat outposts and search buildings for dangers before soldiers enter. Tomorrow’s generation will do a lot more.In the near term—by 2020 or so—look for:Driverless vehicles. The Army and Lockheed Martin have shown that driverless Army trucks can drive 40 mph in a convoy, obey traffic laws, avoid obstacles and stop for pedestrians. They’re guided by GPS, radar, lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) systems, and other sensors. They could be delivering water, food, ammunition and fuel to troops by 2020.Robotic mules. The Army is testing wheeled or legged vehicles that can carry hundreds of pounds of supplies, follow verbal and visual commands of their soldier overseers, and recharge batteries.Micro-robots. Palm-sized—and even smaller—robots can fly and crawl ahead of soldiers and beam back video reconnaissance images.In the longer term—2035 and later:Robotic wingmen. Robots armed with machine guns, grenade launchers and rockets may accompany soldiers into battle. Some may be as small as a lawn mower, others as big as a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Armed with day and night cameras and other sensors, they will be sent ahead to assess the threat and engage the enemy. They’ll be able to navigate around and over obstacles with little or no guidance from their human companions. Only humans, connected wirelessly to the robots, will be able to fire the weapons.