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Commentary: Why the United States must win the robotics race

Jens Meyer/AP

Robots have become a critical security and intelligence component of 21st century warfare. As a result of their proven success in combat, the types of missions that robots perform are rapidly expanding on and off the battlefield. This proliferation of practical robots highlights the leadership position of the United States in the global robotics industry and the importance of maintaining it.

Indeed, robotics is one of the two most promising areas of scientific innovation and economic growth in America right now. (Biogenetics is the other.) In the not-so-distant past, the United States enjoyed great economic and technological success with automobiles, aviation, agriculture and information technology. In the near future, robotics has the same potential to be an economic engine that carries the nation forward, providing a foundation for significant enhancements and employment opportunities in defense, research and other critical sectors.

Building on Past Success

Twenty years ago, robots were mostly an idea. Today, they are performing all kinds of tasks in various environments.

The Defense Department's successful use of robots is a perfect example. Unmanned ground, air and underwater vehicles provide situational awareness and perform bomb disposal, surveillance and reconnaissance, oceanographic research and other missions for armed forces around the world.

The impact isn't just on the battlefield, as robots also are performing tasks in millions of homes, including vacuuming carpets, washing floors and cleaning gutters. Advancements in wireless connectivity, computational horsepower, artificial intelligence, sensors and power efficiency are making new robotic functionality a reality for less cost than ever before. The promise of practical robots is no longer just a promise; the robots are here now and there are going to be many more of them soon.

Preparing for the Future

Today, military robots are largely controlled remotely from a distance and always require a human in the decision-making loop. They are an extension of the soldier and provide a virtual presence, but they require constant operator involvement and heads-down operation.

As a result, robots will become more valuable as they become more autonomous. Autonomy will reduce bandwidth and personnel requirements. It's also going to break the ratio of one operator to one robot; in the future, one operator will control a dozen robots.

Some simple, limited autonomous capabilities are starting to leave the lab and will make their way into theater soon. For example, with retro-traverse functionality, when a robot loses communications it retraces its approach path until communications are restored. Retro-traverse eliminates the need for a soldier to go down range and retrieve a disabled robot, which defeats the whole point of using a robot in the first place. Similarly, self-righting technology enables a robot that has been flipped over to automatically right itself and continue the mission without operator intervention, tremendously reducing the operator's overhead and increasing their situational awareness.

Autonomous technology will profoundly affect tactics and doctrine in the future, too. Instead of using a joystick to control a robot, an operator will use his or her voice and hand gestures to direct robots performing as part of a combat team. With advanced autonomy, multiple robots functioning as wingmen and teammates will significantly reduce costs and demands on personnel. At that point, robots will be true force multipliers capable of performing a variety of tasks and coordinated missions, such as collaborative target engagement using unmanned ground and aerial vehicles.

Facing Global Competition

Right now, on the battlefields in Afghanistan, thousands of life-saving military robots are deployed with troops. It's the beginning of a shift to squads with more robots and fewer soldiers. The robots go in first, providing situational awareness for troops from safe standoff distances while inspecting IEDs, clearing convoy routes and performing other dangerous missions.

Although the United States is leading the world in robotics, global competition is picking up. Plenty of other nations -- Israel, South Korea, China and Germany, to name a few -- also see the incredible potential in robotics. South Korea already has a national industrial strategy for robotics; the United States doesn't at this point. With so much at stake, we need to ensure the United States stays on top.

Of course, competition for resources is always an issue and even more so in a tightening defense market. The dilemma facing military planners is whether budget dollars are spent on ships, tanks, airplanes and the weapons of the past or on unmanned systems and other emerging technologies of the future. It's a tough transition. And it raises another difficult question: what do we do in the interim?

Learning Our Lessons

One thing's for sure: we need to learn from the lessons of the last 10 years, particularly with regard to irregular warfare and the cheap, simple asymmetric attacks that have profoundly restricted freedom of action and cost our troops dearly, including the proliferation of IEDs.

A new strategy is emerging. Future conflicts likely will be fought with more special operations troops from greater standoff distances with better situational awareness and better coordination. Robots will be smaller and lighter and they'll perform reconnaissance, clear buildings and conduct raids and other dangerous missions for the infantry and special operations forces, not just for bomb-disposal teams.

With the addition of more robots, the future battlefield generally will be more survivable. In the future, soldiers will be able to leverage intelligent unmanned systems even more so than they do today (and we already do a lot today with satellite feeds, tactical reconnaissance, standoff weapons systems, air strikes and more). Ultimately, unmanned systems will work together collaboratively on the land, in the air and under water to provide enhanced situational awareness and perform coordinated missions.

For national defense and economic growth, the United States must maintain its leadership position in robotics -- with what we know today, what we see coming tomorrow and what we don't know will be coming in the distant future.

Joe Dyer is chief strategy officer at iRobot Corp. His career in the U.S. Navy included positions as commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center and F/A-18 program manager. He chairs NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

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