Military lags in race for robot vehicles

New York TimesSeptember 29, 2013 

— Cars that can park, brake at a sign of danger and navigate in traffic are on their way to dealers’ showrooms, turning science-fiction fantasies of self-driving vehicles into a new reality.

But as private investors have been pushing ahead to develop the systems needed for these new robotic machines, one crucial innovator has been largely out of the loop: the U.S. military.

The armed forces have lagged in deploying their own versions of unmanned road vehicles, despite goals to create machines that could replace “boots on the ground” in conflicts. Cuts in spending and technological challenges have left the military with virtually no chance of meeting the goal set by Congress to have a third of the combat fleet consist of unmanned vehicles by 2015, experts said.

The military’s failure to lead the way in self-driving ground vehicles is ironic, given that today’s commercial advances have their roots in research originally sponsored by Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s advanced technology organization. A decade ago, Darpa offered a series of “grand challenges” to private researchers, which helped push the technology forward.

General Motors and Nissan said last month they would offer self-driving cars before the end of the decade. Early next year BMW and several other carmakers plan to offer limited systems that will drive automatically in freeway traffic at low speeds. Google already has a small fleet of vehicles with more than a half-million miles of automatic driving in California.

“Now the automation of vehicles is taking off on the civilian side,” said Peter W. Singer, a Brookings Institution researcher and author of “Wired for War,” about robot weapons. Singer predicts that civilian advances will ultimately trickle down to the military, a radical turnaround.

The military is not completely bereft of high-tech ground vehicles that can assist in warfare. The Legged Squad Support System, developed by Boston Dynamics, is a four-legged robot that is intended to follow a soldier in the field, carrying up to 400 pounds of equipment.

However, the robot illustrates the technological challenges of making vehicles that not only have systems in place to complete tasks, but can operate and survive in unmapped, hostile environments.

“The hard problem in building autonomous ground vehicles is that the ground is hard,” said Gill Pratt, a program manager at Darpa.

Dealing with tall grass

Yet there has been progress. A video of the Legged Squad Support System’s climbing hills and walking over rocks got 1.5 million views. The designers’ real achievement, Pratt said, was in building a robot that wasn’t stumped by tall grass.

“One of the most important things you see in the videos is not the robot climbing up the hill,” he said. “It was actually that it made the decision that it could go through the grass. I saw that and I said, ‘Wow!’”

But such ground vehicles remain few and far between. In contrast, a third of the military’s air fleet has been autonomous since 2012, meeting a goal set by Congress a dozen years ago.

At a recent military-oriented trade show at the Washington Convention Center, sleek Predator-style surveillance planes, robotic helicopters and hovering coffee table-size quad-copters could be spotted just about everywhere. But only a handful of unmanned ground systems were shown, and they were based on technology half a decade old.

The imbalance between air and land systems can be seen in Pentagon spending this year. The budget ending Sept. 30 allocated $6.04 billion for autonomous aircraft and just $261 million for unmanned ground vehicles.

The gap, said John Arquilla, a military strategist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., a research university operated by the Navy, is “particularly troubling because a large percentage of our casualties were people driving vehicles blown up by IEDs.” If trucks in Afghanistan and Iraq had been robotic, he said, “casualties would have been cut by two-thirds over the last decade.”

No money for research

Maureen Schumann, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the goal of deploying autonomous ground systems was taken off the table when Congress killed the financing for the Future Combat System, a $340 billion project, in 2009. Critics said spending had run amok, and the goals did not necessarily address the challenges posed by today’s terrorists and insurgents.

“The collapse of FCS has knocked the Army out of the technology business,” said James Lewis, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They are now really focused on helicopters and less on the kind of vehicles used for humping stuff around the ground.”

In a 2012 report, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, an advisory group, noted public fears that the move toward robot warriors would rapidly displace human judgment in warfare. Questions have also been raised about the morality – and strategic effectiveness – of their use.

The military, too, has its reservations.

“Over time we are slowly knocking down this wall, but there is a resistance to new technologies being introduced in and around soldiers,” said Don Nimblett, a senior manager for Lockheed Martin’s combat maneuver systems, a contractor that could benefit from Pentagon spending on such systems. “We’ve gone about as far as we can. At some point the government has to make it into a program and fund it.”

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service