U.S. Army evaluates self-driving, machine gun-toting robots

At Fort Benning demonstration, robotics firms show off technology that can carry soldiers' gear and fend off the enemy (See video below)

The U.S. Army, looking to use more robots on the battlefield, this week is getting a peek at just how ready robots are to become trusted parts of the military.

Commercial companies are demonstrating robots at a four-day event at the Fort Benning Army post in Georgia this week.

The robotic demo is set to culminate on Thursday when robots built by four companies will fire machine guns with live ammunition before a group of senior military officers.

Robot live fire
A robot from HDT Robotics fires live rounds at targets 150 meters away during a practice demonstration at Fort Benning, Ga. on Wednesday. The robot is chained for safety purposes during the demo. (Image: Sharon Gaudin)

The event was scheduled so the Army's top officers can "see what technology is available," said Keith Singleton, chief of the Unmanned Systems Team for the Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Benning. "Sometimes we have lofty dreams about what we can do. This shows us what's actually available."

Companies like Northrop Grumman, 5D Robotics, HDT Robotics, iRobot, QinetiQ and Lockheed Martin are showing how robots can maneuver through rough or wooded terrain, carry heavy loads and move autonomously.

Singleton said that the Army has field tested a weaponized robot, but has yet to add the technology to its battlefield inventory.

"We've been looking at robots for years," he said. "They save soldiers' lives. Robots can do things like investigate IEDs. There are some challenges, like mobility. You need it to go where you go. And there's security. You need to protect it from being taken by the enemy or having its weapons system taken."

The military has said repeatedly that it's looking to expand the role of robots from the dumb tools used today to working as an active member of a troop in the battlefield.

In 20 to 40 years, humanoid robots could precede soldiers into dangerous areas, and performing tasks such as turning a wrench to open valves, opening doors and climbing ladders. Some day, the Army might send autonomous robots into battle to physically engage the enemy.

Scott Hartley, a senior research engineer and co-founder of 5D Robotics, told Computerworld this week he estimates that in 10 years, there may be 10 robots for every soldier in the U.S. military.

The robots will do everything from moving supplies around military bases to doing security patrols, following soldiers onto the battlefield and even flanking soldiers during dangerous situations, he predicts.

Here's a quick roundup of autonomous robots seen at a recent robotics demonstration in Fort Benning, Ga. The U.S. Army is looking at how robots can help soldiers in the field.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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