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Developing Robots that can Perform Dangerous Military Tasks


The U.S. military is ramping up efforts to cut down on the number of troop casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two thousand five hundred American military personnel have been killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, and over 200 more have died in Afghanistan. Now, in an effort to stem the casualties, the Pentagon is funding research into robots that can perform some of the troops' most dangerous tasks.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of casualties among the US and its allies is mounting: thousands of coalition troops, and as many as 30,000 Iraqi forces, have been killed since 2003 as insurgents develop new methods, such as improvised explosive devices.

Emmanuel Collins is leading a project at Florida State University, which is developing robots that can perform some tasks currently carried out by humans on the battlefield.

"We're trying to keep the American troops out of harm's way. They do reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition, so what we're trying to do is develop the technology to replace the soldier in those particular tasks".

And it is hoped the technology could reduce the carnage. One robot has taken years to develop. It is able to make its way through complicated terrains -- without being accompanied by a human -- using cameras, lasers and acoustic sensors.

"So we're replacing a soldier driving a vehicle with a robotic vehicle," says Collins. "They're performing very similar tasks but now, of course, the soldier is no longer directly in the line-of-fire for the enemy."

With the toll on U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the pressure is on to develop this technology quickly. But scientists say it could be 10 years before unmanned ground robots are used in actual war situations, because complex technology takes time to perfect.

"We start with simulation, just computer simulation. But the problem with computer simulation is it's difficult to take into account a lot of the factors that actually occur when you actually implement things in hardware," cautions Collins. "Then our next step is to implement them in our own lab in our own robots, which are simpler, smaller robots than the Army is using for these tasks. Then once we have it mastered in our own lab then we transfer it to an Army vehicle that's used specifically for that purpose and then they put it through a gamut of tests."

The military is spending half a million dollars a year at this university developing an unmanned ground vehicle that uses similar technology to aircraft drones already in use. In 2004, the U.S. government spent more than $60 billion on this kind of research and development.

"In my view, sitting where I'm sitting, the military has some of the most developed technology in our society, certainly our world. I would say the military is very high-tech and very reliant on its technology for its success".

But for the time-being, the most dangerous jobs in war zones continue to be performed by troops.