U.S. military may have 10 robots per soldier by 2023

Military expects to soon be using autonomous robots to carry soldiers' gear and scan for enemy combatants

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He's hesitant to have a robot carry his gear but knows he'll have to adjust that thinking.

"It would not be a bad thing but I'm traditional," said Briggs. "I'm used to carrying my pack. I'm sure it will come and I'll have to get used to it. It comes back to old ways and incorporating new stuff. It's like when we started to use GPS instead of a compass. I trusted my compass. I had to get used to GPS."

Briggs, like other officers at the robotics demonstrations, said he needs to see the robots prove themselves. "We need to see it's going to do what they say it will do."

Hartley said the biggest challenge facing robot developers is convincing military leaders that the machines can be trusted.

"It's about building trust," he said. "When you have a system that drives itself, you don't want it to scare people or confuse them. If the robot lurches every time it moves, that's not natural. It needs a more biological motion. We want to see things that act like us. That engenders trust."

Phil Coker, director of integrated platform systems at Northrop Grumman, said developers have to make sure robots aren't difficult for soldiers to manage and control.

To avoid that, Northrop Grumman and other robotic companies are including technology to allow voice control and the ability to follow or lead soldiers without being tethered. The companies are also working on retro-traverse capabilities that enable robots to recall routes taken so that can backtrack to the start of the trip..

Retro-traverse technology would allow soldiers pinned down by an enemy to send robots to base locations to get water or ammunition.

"It's tremendously important to keep [soldiers] free from having to operate a robot," said Coker. "Otherwise, handling a robot is a full-time job. Concentrating on the job and not the robot keeps them alive."

Robots must also be secure to meet military needs. The system must be protected against hacking and allow for encrypted radio communications.

Keith Singleton, chief of the Unmanned Systems Team for the Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Benning, said demonstrations like last month's are important to keep the military up-to-date on the capabilities of the latest technology. "Sometimes we have lofty dreams about what we can do," he said. "We've been looking at robots for years. This shows us what's actually available."

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.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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