New Robot Weapons Look Like 1970s Science Fiction
As technology improves, far-out concepts become reality
More than 40 years ago, the Pentagon’s hired geeks came up with all kinds of radical designs for ground combat robots. Now as technology improves, those dated concepts – in some cases resembling fantastical “tales of future past” illustrations – have become realities.
Last week, defense firms showed off their latest robotic weapons at the annual Association of the U.S. Army exposition in Washington, D.C. Many of the remotely operated vehicles and watercraft on display looked a lot like ideas the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency cooked up decades ago.
In 1971, DARPA had hired Battelle’s Tactical Technology Center – a.k.a. TACTEC – to find out what sort of remotely-operated cars and boats were on the commercial market and which ones might be useful on a future battlefield.
The Battelle team looked at the possibility of having remote-controlled vehicles perform almost any mission imaginable. Robotic ground vehicles could haul gear or rescue wounded soldiers, blow up tanks, scout ahead of troops, plant landmines, put out fires or even just explode on command.
Unmanned boats might attack other vessels, hunt for enemy mines, patrol friendly rivers and canals or act as “kamikaze” bombs, according to a 1972 Battelle study.
Blending features of both designs, amphibious drones would perform the same sorts of tasks … and maybe even drop off additional, smaller robots.
Battelle’s artists sketched out more than a dozen different ideas by hand.. One idea was a small tracked patrol vehicle armed with a fast-firing minigun and automatic grenade launcher. With the help of two cameras, operators could steer the vehicle and aim the weapons.
Like something out of a steampunk graphic novel, one drawing depicts the drone blasting an enemy earthwork with a water-cooled machine gun – rarely seen in most major armies after World War II – at point blank range.
The Army is now experimenting with similar vehicles. In 2004, the ground combat branch’s Picatinny Arsenal revealed the Special Weapon Observation Reconnaissance Direct-Action System, or SWORDS. Based on the Talon mine-clearing robot, soldiers could equip the SWORDS with a machine gun, sniper rifle, grenade launcher or rockets.
Three years later, Virginia-based QinetiQ brought its improved Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System to the 2007 AUSA event. While the weapons might be different, QinetiQ’s design is exactly what Battelle had envisioned in its study.
In May, the Marine Corps’ Warfighting Laboratory demonstrated the latest versions at an open house in Arlington, Virginia. The Corps’ previously toyed around with a tiny remotely operated machine gun-armed “tank” called Gladiator.
Previously, the Army looked seriously at drones big enough to carry deadly anti-tank missiles or other heavy weapons as part of its Future Combat Systems program. In 2009, the Pentagon canned that project, putting the immediate future of the XM-1219 Armed Robotic Vehicle into doubt.
In the meantime, Russia and other countries have been hard at work on these types of combat drones.
The Army and Marines both see the potential of unmanned vehicles plowing through minefields and performing other hazardous combat engineer duties. At this year’s convention, Ohio-headquartered HDT Global trotted out its Micro-Utility Vehicle.
With the right attachments, this robot can haul up to 500 pounds of cargo, clear mines or dig trenches. HDT Global says the vehicle can travel more than 60 miles on one tank of gas at a top speed of three miles per hour. Despite being intended for support missions, the manufacturer offers a mount for a heavy machine gun so the carrier can defend itself.
Decades ago, Battelle’s researchers sketched out hole-digging and mine-detonating drones. But they didn’t draw weapons on these concept vehicles. The ones on display in 2015 do have them.
While AUSA’s event is primarily about the Army, the convention is still a major chance for defense companies to show off for the Pentagon and the press. This year, Maryland-based Neany brought an armed robotic jet ski to the exposition hall.
While the propulsion method is different, the machine-gun equipped DragonSpy looks a lot like Battelle’s vision of a remote-controlled combat hovercraft. Neany displayed a version with a machine gun, cameras and a small landing pad for its own quadcopter-type drone – another realization of a Battelle concept.
Swarms of miniature war boats might help guard U.S. Navy ships or overwhelm enemies in the near future. In August 2014, the Office of Naval Research ran an experiment with more than dozen robotic vessels to see if this idea had any merit.
The sailing branch was impressed with the results.
Still, not everything from the early 1970s seems to have been a good idea in the end. So far, Battelle’s ideas for a barbed-wire layer and railroad track-riding “guard dog” – complete with tear gas spraying nozzles, strobe lights and an alarm – haven’t come to fruition.
During World War II, the U.S. military captured Nazi Goliath remote-controlled bombs. But the Pentagon never seemed particularly interested in developing a similar weapon.
Battelle’s plan for a high-speed, remote controlled anti-ship weapon – a sort of sea-skimming hydrofoil cruise missile – didn’t seem to offer any benefits over conventional bombs, missiles and torpedoes.
At the same time, it’s safe to assume that we haven’t seen the full extent of the Pentagon’s robotic future. To speculate about what that might look like, it’s useful to peek into the past.