Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Terminator cometh

At 3 feet tall and a whopping 200 pounds, it wouldn't pass a physical, but it fires a machine gun with half-mile accuracy and doesn't flinch.

The latest infantryman is electronic -- a gun-toting robot developed at Picatinny Arsenal.

Engineers at the Army weapons research post in Rockaway Township hope to send the machine, the first of its kind, into combat this year.

They envision the robot rolling through city streets in search of the enemy, while troops operate it from a half-mile away.

Unlike its human counterparts, it doesn't run out of breath, and it can hit a pie plate from about 900 yards. A soldier might need to be about 600 yards closer to boast the same level of accuracy.

It goes "places you don't want to send a soldier," said Rudy Roehrich, a Picatinny engineer who helped design and test the machine.

Picatinny has been working on the $3.2 million program for several years, wrestling with how to ensure the robo-soldier fires only when it's commanded.

It's also taken some time to convince Army brass of the remote-controlled machine's potential.

"The Army is not used to machines doing their work," Roehrich said. "When you put a gun on it, they say, 'What's a soldier going to do? I don't trust that too much.' It's a culture change."

One of the biggest tests has been ensuring the robot does only what it's told. Troops operate the machine from a suitcase-size computer that lets them peer through the robot's five cameras and drive it by tilting a joystick.

Soldiers must stay in constant communication with the robot and give it a series of computerized commands before the M249 machine gun fires.

"It can't arm and fire if everything is not exactly right," Roehrich said. The robot soldier also is said not to be invincible, although Picatinny engineers would not specify exactly how it could be destroyed in combat.

Arsenal engineers see the $250,000 robot -- known as Special Weapons Observation Remote Reconnaissance Direct-Action System, or SWORDS -- as a way to keep troops out of harm's way.

It also may be a harbinger of things to come.

The idea for the gun-toting robot developed about three years ago when troops in Afghanistan asked for a device that could crawl through caves.

Picatinny engineers attached several weapons to the TALON robot, which the military has used for several years to disarm roadside bombs and mines. But it was the machine-gun version that troops found most helpful because of its ability to fire fast and far.

Contractor Foster-Miller in Massachusetts is making 10, and 83 more are planned to be built.

The Army is still reviewing the robot, but engineers hope to get it to U.S. units this year and, after training, to Iraq, said Picatinny project officer Kim Jones.

So far, a SWORDS prototype has been a hit, said retired Sgt. 1st Class Dave Platt, who runs robot training sessions at Fort Benning, Ga.

While some older troops are hesitant about using it and can be "set in their ways," the younger ones are excited to learn how it works, Platt said.

"They'd rather use this than stand in 130-degree heat with 100 pounds of armor and ammunition," said Platt, who works for the U.S. Special Operations Command in Florida.