Robo soldiers: gun-toting ground robots see action in Iraqi streets.

Author:Magnuson, Stew
Position:ROBO SOLDIERS - Cover story

The U.S. Army quietly entered a new era earlier this summer when it sent the first armed ground robots into action in Iraq.

So far, the robot army's entry into the war has been a trickle rather than an invasion. Only three of the special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system (SWORDS) have been deployed so far.

The Army has authorized the purchase of 80 more robots--which are being touted as a potentially lifesaving technology--but acquisition officials have not come forth with the funding.

"As [soldiers] use them and like them, I've heard positive feedback, they want 20 more immediately. It's a shame we can't get them to them," said Michael Zecca, former SWORDS program manager and chief of weapons safety and health physics branch at the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.

Whether SWORDS and other armed robots become effective weapons remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is moving forward with dozens of other robotics programs--from the now ubiquitous surveillance drones to ground robots that perform security and logistics duties. SWORDS could be the first step leading to a larger "robot army."

The three SWORDS robots, which tote M249 light machine guns and are remotely controlled by a soldier through a terminal, are with the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade. After three years of development at ARDEC, the robots were formally approved for combat use in June. Their exact whereabouts and missions are classified, but Zecca confirmed that they have been used in reconnaissance tasks and street patrols. He didn't know if their weapons had been fired.

SWORDS is designed to take on "high risk combat missions," said an ARDEC press release. A specialist controlling the robot may send it into a crowded neigh borhood infested with snipers to seek targets and take them out before a foot patrol follows.

"Anytime you utilize technology to take a U.S. service member out of harm's way it is worth every penny," said John Saitta, a consultant with Smart Business Advisory and Consulting and a major in the Marine Corps reserves, who has been trained as a weapons tactics instructor.

"These armed robots can be used as a force multiplier to augment an already significant for in the battle space," he added.

The 80 robots were approved under equipment request, which is a mechanism designed to speed potentially life-saving technologies to the battlefield. They are being held up "due to limited funding...

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