Monday, June 11, 2007

New Armed Robot Groomed for War

The company behind the only armed robots in Iraq is rolling out a new model of gun-toting machine, built from the start for combat. DANGER ROOM has exclusive pictures and footage.

During the early days of the Iraq war, the roboteers at Foster-Miller modified their bomb-disposal machines, to have them carry machine guns, grenade launchers, or rockets.

After years of safety testing and modifications, three of these deadly SWORDS ("special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system") robots were recently sent to Iraq.

But even now, safety concerns (among other reasons) have kept those machines from firing a shot in combat. But Foster-Miller is already rolling a new model of armed robot — one that’s comes with additional extra, built-in precautions, and has been designed from the beginning to fight.

MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) features new software controls, which allow the robot’s driver to select fire and no-fire zones. The idea is keep the robots from accidentally shooting a flesh-and-blood American. A mechanical range fan also keeps MAARS’ gun pointed away from friendly positions.

The robot is also equipped with a GPS transmitter, so it can be seen on — and tap into — the American battlefield mapping programs, just like tanks and Humvees. These "Blue Force Trackers" have been credited with dramatically reducing friendly-fire incidents during the Iraq war. MAARS comes with an extra fail-safe, which won’t allow it to fire directly at its own control unit.

Nor does the robot always have to carry a gun. A mechanical arm can be swapped "in a couple of minutes" for the weapon, according to MARRS program manager Charles Dean, a retired Army Lt. Colonel. Which means the robot could be used for "inspecting IEDs, opening doors, even dragging casualties."

The tracks can also be removed, and changed out for wheels; better for urban operations, perhaps. Combined with a lower center of gravity, Dean believes the MAARS will be about 50% faster than its predecessors, which rumbled over streets at 5 miles per hour.

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