Opinion Columns & Blogs

John M. House: Robot rodeo isn’t sci-fi stuff anymore

The first robot I remember seeing was in an old science fiction movie that I would call a classic, “Forbidden Planet.” Robby the Robot starred alongside Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielson, and a host of other actors. Robots are no longer science fiction, not by any means. I’m sure most people have seen robots being used in Iraq to defeat Improvised Explosive Devices. Robots have been used in assembly line manufacturing. There’s even one that vacuums the floor. Any act that is repetitive is a candidate for a robot.

Robotic devices have tremendous potential in military or other dangerous environments. Why risk a person if a machine can do the job? The U.S. military services continue to investigate potential capabilities needed in robots as well as ways to use the capabilities that exist today. The Maneuver Center of Excellence recently hosted the Army’s Robotics Rodeo on 14-15 October at the McKenna Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) facility on Fort Benning, where participants demonstrated their robotic systems. There were no cowboys or horses at this rodeo, but there certainly were some amazing sights.

There were so many companies involved I won’t try to mention them. The Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC) media advisory listed 50 participating companies. Two of those were major universities. The other participants were large and small companies that are working to provide a unique capability to the Army and other military services. The local chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) coordinated school visits. When I visited the rodeo there were several busloads from local schools. That’s a great way to inspire future scientists and engineers! TARDEC co-hosted with the Maneuver Center.

The great promise of robots is that by using them American soldiers’ lives can be saved. A robot might be destroyed in combat, but that would be well worth the cost if a soldier could escape injury or death as a result. The systems at the Rodeo included robot platforms of all sizes from that of a large vehicle to those so small a soldier could carry one on his back. Missions ranged from carrying equipment or injured soldiers to defeating Improvised Explosive Devices. If a machine can perform a task with a person operating it, there is a way to operate the machine remotely if not program the machine to “think” on its own and take action.

Operating devices are pretty simple these days. I saw one company representative take a young man who was about 10 years old out of the viewing stands and have him take control of a robotic bulldozer. Thanks to the system using a controller similar to current electronic games, the young man was able to operate the bulldozer within minutes. Another robotic vehicle could choose its own path through or around trees in order to follow a soldier. A small unmanned aerial vehicle was flying around the site providing a birds-eye view of the demonstration area. Demonstrations from the various participants occurred almost constantly in different locations in the area. A large tent provided a place for static displays and discussions away from the demonstrations.

The Robotics Rodeo was a good place to see an overview of the types of missions that a robotic vehicle can perform today. Watching the machines go through their paces provided sparks of ideas for the future. I imagine some of those school-age kids visiting will remember the things they saw and at least one of them will make a profound contribution to the field someday.

That’s important. Finding a way to risk a machine instead of a soldier also makes the exploration of the uses of robots well worth the effort.