HARM'S WAY: U.S. and coalition military operating in Afghanistan have experienced about 10,500 roadside bomb incidents so far this year, up from 8,994 in 2009 and 2,677 in 2007, according to the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). In this picture an explosive is detonated in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. Image: COURTESY OF INTERNATIONAL SECURITY ASSISTANCE FORCE, VIA FLICKR
Hardly a day seems to pass without a new report of a soldier or civilian being killed or maimed by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan or Iraq. Just such a weapon killed two coalition members on Monday in Iraq's volatile southern region, according to NATO. Meanwhile, data published October 22 by Wikileaks indicates that IEDs are the biggest killers of British and US troops in Afghanistan, accounting for more than half of all fatalities.
To protect people from these weapons, the U.S. military increasingly relies on robotic bomb detection and disposal units (in addition to the scores of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) overhead with reconnaissance and strike capabilities), creating life-and-death combat relationships between man and machine that will only deepen and proliferate over time.
U.S. and coalition military operating in Afghanistan have experienced about 10,500 roadside bomb incidents so far this year, up from 8,994 in 2009 and 2,677 in 2007, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), reported October 21. A significant portion of these are IED-related incidents.
The success of such attacks ensures that they will continue for at least the short-term, which means the military is searching for new ways of addressing the problem. In Afghanistan U.S. soldiers conduct month-long Explosive Hazard Reduction courses to train Afghan soldiers about how IEDs work, the threats they pose and techniques for finding them. Coalition forces have spent about $2 billion since 2006 to train soldiers stationed worldwide about IEDs, according to Oates.
A lot of money is also being spent on anti-IED robots. Earlier this month the U.S. Army TACOM Contracting Center in Warren, Mich., ordered $14 million worth of robot intelligence software and spare parts for its PackBot tactical mobile robots, made by iRobot in Bedford, Mass. This was TACOM's 20th such order for iRobot technology and part of the unit's larger $286-million "xBot" contract for purchasing bomb-detection robots.
There are more than 3,500 iRobot devices serving in the U.S. military as well as the armed forces of another 20 allied countries, says Joseph Dyer, iRobot's chief operating officer and a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral. Scientific American spoke with Dyer about the role that robots are playing in modern warfare and where the technology is headed.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
The military's reluctance to rely on robots in combat situations has changed dramatically in recent years. Why is that?
Interest in robotic devices really started with unmanned aerial vehicles in the early 1980s and the RQ-2 Pioneer UAV [developed by AAI, which is now part of Textron Systems Corp., and Israel Aerospace Industries]. The change necessary to adopt, much less embrace, unmanned aircraft first encountered resistance from the white-scarf system of fighter pilots who believed that an unmanned system couldn't do the things a human pilot could do. While there's still some resistance to unmanned vehicles, the realities of war are changing that. Whereas there was a standoffish attitude with the white scarves regarding robotic vehicles in the air, with the Army the soldiers realized robots could do the things the soldiers themselves really didn't want to do. The Army's mission is up close and personal, dangerous and dirty. Consider this: it took 20 years for the unmanned aircraft market to become a half-billion-dollar industry, but it took the newer market for unmanned ground systems only half as long to reach a half-billion dollars.
What is it about the combat in Iraq and Afghanistan that has created a demand for land-based robotic devices?
In urban and desert terrains robots contribute anywhere you need distance between your body and bad things happening. Urban warfare, even for an Army and Marine Corps as accomplished as ours, is scary stuff and fraught with issues of collateral damage and risk to noncombatants.
How are robots typically used in combat situations today?
Of the 3,500 iRobot devices serving the military, the majority of them are helping with explosive ordinance disposal (EOD). Normally, troops will be told about an explosive device or actually find an IED. These soldiers will then call in the threat to specialists who investigate and possibly engage the IED with the aid of a robot, which can be used to send video of the device to an EOD team standing out of the device's range and/or to dispose of the device. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, because of the proliferation of IEDs and the fact that you don't have enough EOD troops to be everywhere they're needed, there's also a strong desire for non-EOD teams to use robots for what's known as route clearance, where the robots will help identify and possibly clear roadside IEDs. During the next phase of use, robots will not just be focused on IEDs or road clearance but rather on becoming a real player in the infantry.