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Bots on The Ground

Staff Sgt. James Craven (background) and Sgt. Domonic Amaral run tests on two Talon 3Bs at a base in Tikrit, Iraq. The Talon 3B is one of several robots used by explosive ordnance disposal units in search of improvised explosive devices.
Staff Sgt. James Craven (background) and Sgt. Domonic Amaral run tests on two Talon 3Bs at a base in Tikrit, Iraq. The Talon 3B is one of several robots used by explosive ordnance disposal units in search of improvised explosive devices. (By Staff Sgt. James Kokotek -- Robotic Systems Joint Project Office)

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Brooks wonders if engineers should actively try to create battle bots that adapt to particular individuals, like a dog. "I'm from Australia," he says, "and Australian sheepdogs -- you and the dog build up a strong working relationship. One could imagine a tactical situation where you're a troop of guys who train together, know each other quite intimately, recognize little hand gestures. One can imagine a deeper sense of communication with a particular bot that is working with those people for a long time, seeing their image, the way their hats are cocked, identifying them based on their gait. One could imagine doing the research to get to that. It's not out of this world."

Medals for Machines

If a robot performs magnificently in battle, should its operator get a medal? Even if that human is hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the action? The question goes to the heart of a novel issue: Where does the bot end and the human begin?

Last month, the Army announced that it would allow unmanned air vehicle (UAV) operators to earn the Distinguished Flying Cross, the high military honor awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in flight.

When Greg Harbin was piloting one of the first Predators over Bosnia from his desk in Hungary, he wasn't actively trying to become the first UAV operator in history to be awarded a medal. He was trying to avoid becoming the first UAV pilot to incinerate a schoolyard full of children.

The then-32-year-old Air Force captain's bot was "dead square right over the city" of Mostar, looking for snipers, when its engine conked out. As it spiraled down, still carrying 2,000 gallons of fuel, Harbin could see on his screen, through the cross hairs of the nose camera, that "it was dead-centered on that school. If I'd allowed that thing to hit into that school, could you imagine?" he recalls. "I would be the first guy in the history of the world to kill somebody with an unmanned aircraft."

Using the kind of fancy flying he'd learned as a fighter pilot, and only the 15 minutes' worth of battery power he had left, he miraculously pulled the bot out of its spiral and found an airstrip run by the French. To make sure the barely-under-control bot didn't hit all their transport planes, he intentionally crash-landed it on their runway. "The French were pretty funny on the radio. They didn't know what it was. They videotaped the whole thing."

But that's not the significant part.

As he was struggling to bring the bot down without an engine, he could see "the ground coming real fast." He dropped the landing gear, flared the wings, pushed the stick forward and then started fumbling around at the bottom of his desk chair.

He had bonded so tightly with the machine hundreds of miles away that he was searching for the lever that would allow him to eject.

It's About the Humans

"EODs are very brave people," Varian says. "They don't put on any sense of weakness." That's why when they get "back from a really rough mission -- the bot got blown up and it could have been them -- we have an area for them to come in, get out of the heat. The refrigerator is stocked with cold drinks and snacks. We've got a satellite phone in the shop. If they haven't talked to the wife, mom and dad, the girlfriend, we give them a phone call back to the States.

"When we talk a system, we're talking the operator as well. We take these guys out, show them where to get a good shower, take them over to the PX, the chow hall. Wind them down while the techs go ahead and try to make a repair on that particular robot. We preach to everybody, you have to look at the system. Not just the machine, but the human."

Nonetheless, Ehrhard worries that a bot "completely changes the human role" in warfare. "That is not lost on these people," he says. "Part of what a society has to do to sacrifice lives is make it heroic. Do you see the dilemma? It's a fundamental dilemma. Look at what we do for the military. Give them uniforms, great burials, medals. I'm retired and people still call me colonel. It's all out of respect for what you have done. How do robots change that?"

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