SWORDS Combat Robot Opens Possibilities; Perhaps Not the way You’d Expect

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I think most people in or out of the military loop have at least heard of US warfighters using a ground-based fighting robot in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps not as dramatically as videos from Reapers and Predators dropping JDAM-equipped bombs and missiles, but show a picture of SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System), and most people will see a miniature remote controlled CAT with cameras and a gun and get the idea.

I'm not sure whether to be pleased or concerned that military weapons have ads that look like they came out of a Popular Mechanics or 'SWAT' magazine.

I’m not sure whether to be pleased or concerned that military weapons have ads that look like they came from Playstation or ‘SWAT’ magazine.

There is a debate raging in Washington right now on whether or not “mechanized soldiers” have a place on the modern battlefield. Probably from bad press over collateral damage and questionable targets overseas. Lt. Col. Stuart Hatfield at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference said that misguided bullets can be even more problematic than misguided bombs because of the distances that can be traveled past the intended target when interviewed by National Defense Magazine.

More interesting I feel is how the weapons themselves were deployed when overseas. SWORDS; essentially a kitbashed TALON bomb disposal robot was used not as part of a mobile patrol as robotic fire support or as the crux of a structure entry team as envisioned, but as self-propelled remote sentry that watches a static position. If you’ve played any of the MechWarrior or MechCommander videogames or have seen the director’s cut to James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens, you are supremely familiar with this concept.

MAARS unit loaded with a quad M-203 grenade launcher array and M240B general purpose machine gun. (7.62x51 NATO)

MAARS unit loaded with a quad M-203 grenade launcher array and M240B general purpose machine gun. (7.62×51 NATO)

Despite Lt Colonel Hatfield’s warning on the future of the mobile remote sentry concept, Qinetiq’s (Formerly Foster-Miller, creator of SWORDS/TALON) new MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) program is charging ahead undaunted. Capable of lifting more in payload than a fully kitted SWORDS robot weighs, the 350 lb. MAARS features a larger motor and transmission tooled to accommodate higher torque. The robot also has sealed and armored electronics, drive and actuator compartments. MAARS techs also enjoy easier access during field maintenance. The result is a faster, better protected, more easily maintained, and by far better armed mobile gun. Or mobile-stationary security system. However MAARS is ultimately employed.

As long as there is a human being behind the monitor making the decisions, I don’t see that there is much of a practical difference whether the bullets or grenades (or bombs or missiles for that matter) are triggered by a trigger or Microsoft Sidewinder D-pad.

At least with one of these guys, there is a video record of the events. Or atrocities. But that’s a different article- and a different blog.

Well bargained, and done.

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About Ron

Long time Battletech fan, Arts and literature dabbler. As comfortable in the 31st century as the 21st. I don't care for sports, but I'd make a big exception on Solaris.

6 thoughts on “SWORDS Combat Robot Opens Possibilities; Perhaps Not the way You’d Expect

  1. Nikoliy

    Hey Ron, the problem with a “Combat Robot” is that the technology is not very advanced and can relatively easily be replicated. So the way US military uses it is extremely important as it sets a precedent. Other countries that are opposed to US interests like Iran can build and operate similar device. So if US is justified in using a remote operated combat vehicle are other countries justified as well? What if the other country is opposed to US how would our soldiers feel facing a remote controlled enemy? What about an enemy soldier killing one of these devices? Does that in its self justify retaliation? Is that an act of war? What if one of these devices was hacked and was used to attack and kill civilians are the original operators still responsible for that?
    Operating a surveillance drone in a war time environment or using a bomb disposal robot is easy to justify. Using a combat robot needs to be examined far more carefully then what I see happening in US military or US government.

    Reply
    1. Ron Post author

      That’s how arms races get started. These ‘bots don’t need to be advanced. In fact among the Libyan rebels more interesting contraptions was the chassis of a PowerWheels electric kid’s toy rigged with RC servos and fixed PKM machinegun and digital camera. The whole works was controlled via blue tooth by laptop. Probably about as effective, and as usual loads cheaper than anything our Military Industrial Complex will ever do.

      Most of your questions are answered politically. And will change to dictate current policies of whoever is at the podium at the time.

      Just like with the Mackie- the Genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle.
      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2004050/Libya-War-Home-bombs-childs-toy-truck-mounted-machine-gun.html

      http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=298_1308110612

      Reply
      1. Nikoliy

        Ron and Andy, I’m not asking you guys to answer the questions I posed. They are more rhetorical for the proposes of this article and the article that it covers. Certainly I don’t claim to have the ability to determine the right and wrong in all situations. What would be the prudent and moral thing to do (for US government and military) IMO is to have a debate between our partners in the major military alliances in the world IE: NATO, CSTO, SADC, PSC, MNNA. Then bring this to UN and finally create an international treaty, maybe add it as the Fifth Geneva Convention.
        Also Ron I think you, perhaps unintentionally, misrepresented the article from National Defense. From what I read their it seams the major debate is still in the military (or in the Pentagon if you would like) not in Washington (usual means our political not military leaders). I think most Washington leaders are pretty ignorant of this and are far too busy with more petty issues… Its interesting that the total of 3 offensively capable SWORDS were not actually employed offensively. Instead they performed guard/century duty a task that a future more automated robot might be much better suited to.
        btw the technical with the B-8V-20 rocket pod is pretty awesome
        http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2011/06/15/article-0-0C94C3A200000578-59_964x595.jpg

        Reply
        1. Ron Post author

          Good point. Perhaps I use the terms Washington and The Pentagon interchangeably and could have elaborated a bit more. I try not to touch on that location too often if I can help it. Sarna is geared more towards THIRTY-first century politics, and tries to focus more on parallel or convergent technology.

          Reply
  2. Andy in Indy

    > So if US is justified in using a remote operated combat vehicle are other countries justified as well?
    Definitely, yes. To quote the movie “Doctor Strangelove”: “We must not have a mineshaft gap!”. Bear in mind, that justified does not mean right or wrong, merely balanced.
    >What if the other country is opposed to US how would our soldiers feel facing a remote controlled enemy?
    They would think it would be a good idea to break the machines in the imediate area and destroy the Command & control infrastructure. Same doctrine as has been used since the 1970’s.
    >What about an enemy soldier killing one of these devices? Does that in its self justify retaliation?
    Maybe. But it harder for the populace to become emotionally attached to the machines of war compared to the attachments to their people who are fighting. “They broke our droids!” is a weak rallying point for support, but if they broke, they should buy it!
    >Is that an act of war?
    Possibly. Destroying one of our airplanes, tanks, or ships seems enough to incite war, but when the US lost drones to Iran they took no overt action (they may have taken covert action i.e. helping hack and destroy the centrifuges for Iran’s nuclear program.
    >What if one of these devices was hacked and was used to attack and kill civilians are the original operators still responsible for that?
    Yes, if someone hacked our drones we have some responsibility for them being vulnerable to the attack. We would not have total responsibility (they didn’t HAVE to hack our drones) but it would be like leaving your car somewhere with the keys in it: if it is stolen you are at least partially responsible for the theft.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: US Military Personnel to be Outnumbered by robots 10-1 by 2023 | Sarna.net

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