Deployed

The U.S. Military has fielded more US Tower ground mobile comms & surveillance platforms than any other manufacturer.

But the future is likely to see lethal UAVs both smaller than the Switchblade and larger than the Predator, especially with ongoing efforts to develop insect-sized flying robots and the expected development of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). UCAVs essentially are jet fighters and bombers whose pilots never leave the ground and, as with the Predator, may be half a world away from the combat zone. Or they may be controlled by the pilot or a second crewman in a manned aircraft flying in attack formation with them.

Some of the anticipated mission profiles for UCAVs call for a level of semi-autonomous operation that certainly would place them in the "smart" category. Contrary to TV and movie depictions, however, the U.S. military has made it clear there will always be a human in the loop when weapons are involved, making the decision on use of force and solely responsible for pulling the trigger.

Virtually every military on Earth is buying or developing a wide range of UAVs, which almost certainly will be employed against the United States in some future conflict. So far, other nations - only a very few of which can approach the technological level of U.S. systems - appear to be following the same restrictions on autonomy and lethality.

While autonomous fire is not a concern, even groups such as al Qaeda could convert high-end remote-controlled aircraft, built for civilian model flying, into winged versions of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have become the insurgent weapon of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The same is true with unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), which have been used by the U.S. military for years for explosive ordnance disposal and to check cars for explosives at checkpoints in Iraq and Afghanistan. The commercial robot market is expected to grow even faster in the next quarter century than personal computers did in the last, making a wide range of remote-controlled or even semi-autonomous robots available to anyone. Again, it would take little effort to adapt those to ISR or even lethal attack capabilities.

Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate

Top: A Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate (GUSS) follows the beacon signal of Pfc. Dylan J. Hoffstatter (right), grenadier for 3rd Platoon, Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, during a four-day experimental testing evolution at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows while in support of the 2010 Rim of the Pacific exercise. GUSS was employed for roles ranging from carrying supplies to casualty evacuation. Above: The Army's small unmanned ground vehicle (SUGV) is part of Brigade Combat Team (BCT) modernization and will be an integral part of future BCTs.

Top: A Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate (GUSS) follows the beacon signal of Pfc. Dylan J. Hoffstatter (right), grenadier for 3rd Platoon, Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, during a four-day experimental testing evolution at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows while in support of the 2010 Rim of the Pacific exercise. GUSS was employed for roles ranging from carrying supplies to casualty evacuation. Above: The Army's small unmanned ground vehicle (SUGV) is part of Brigade Combat Team (BCT) modernization and will be an integral part of future BCTs.

Above: BigDog robots trot around in the shadow of an MV-22 Osprey. BigDog is a dynamically stable quadruped robot created in 2005 by Boston Dynamics with Foster Miller, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Harvard University Concord Field Station. Right: Robonaut 2 - or R2 for short - shown tweeting. R2 will be traveling to the International Space Station aboard Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission.

Above: BigDog robots trot around in the shadow of an MV-22 Osprey. BigDog is a dynamically stable quadruped robot created in 2005 by Boston Dynamics with Foster Miller, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Harvard University Concord Field Station. Right: Robonaut 2 - or R2 for short - shown tweeting. R2 will be traveling to the International Space Station aboard Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission.

Only a handful of nations are likely to have the technological capability to bring smart weapons or systems such as the United States currently uses to any engagement in the coming decade. And by the time they do, odds are the U.S. military will have moved on to the next level - unless budget constraints limit DoD's ability to pursue further advanced research and development or procure new technologies.

On the other hand, the real advances in smart weapons are far more likely to be based on civilian developments, with the advantage going to those who can best adapt those technologies to military applications.

One such possibility is a humanoid robot, such as the Robonaut NASA is sending to the International Space Station before the end of 2010. A joint development with General Motors, which plans to use them in their auto manufacturing plants, the Robonaut features the most advanced mechanical hands ever built, with each finger having its own CPU.

While there is no known current military program for humanoid robots, engineers at MCWL have said they would be interested in looking at what Robonaut can do and its potential as an ISR platform in the field. Just as GM sees the humanoid form as better able to move onto the manufacturing floor, working in spaces and with tools designed for humans, such a robot also would be better able to deal with vehicles, buildings, tools, and so on in a battlespace.

Whether that also would include weapons - at whatever level of autonomy - is another question.

A 2003 study by the U.S. Joint Forces Command's Project Alpha rapid idea analysis group concluded a Tactical Autonomous Combatant (TAC) could be integrated into a networked battlespace as early as 2025. The study - "Unmanned Effects: Taking the Human out of the Loop" - characterized a TAC as an autonomous mechanical device, of any size or shape, able to work in ground, air, space, or undersea environments, but especially in extreme heat or cold or where chemical, biological, or radiological contamination would restrict human operations.

At the time, a weaponized TAC was considered a likely evolution of the concept, although military officials in recent years have been emphatic about keeping the human in the loop.

"I'm always a little antsy about putting a rifle in CPU-driven fingers, but I would love to give it an ISR capability," Goulding said. "I don't know if we're ready to have it do soldiering tasks, but I'm certainly interested in the lab looking at it and assessing the utility.

"The TTPs point would have to look very carefully at where there is applicability. We put a lot into what the human Marine brings to the table in terms of decision-making and intellect and, at the end of the day, AI used to fire weapons is a long way off."

Even if something like Robonaut does not see combat duty in the next decade or two, other walking robots almost certainly will - descendants of BigDog, a four-legged robotic mule built by Boston Dynamics for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2005. BigDog attracted considerable attention, from both the general public and military engineers, and was considered a successful proof-of-concept, although it was far too noisy and not quite stable enough for real-world military use.

But autonomous, semi-autonomous, and convertible (manned or unmanned) UGVs and UAVs, based on the record of those already in service in Iraq and Afghanistan, "have earned a place in DoD because the capabilities of these systems continue to grow and expand," according to Maj. Patrick Reynolds, head of MCWL's Logistics Combat Element Branch and lead on the Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate (GUSS), a six-wheeled platform currently being tested by the Marines.

Other smart or precision weapons - some already fielded in limited numbers, others still in the R&D or test and evaluation phase - include:

If to

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