Military leaders have always tried to find ways to help their soldiers survive on the battlefield. At first, that took shape in the development of ever more durable types of armor, from leather to Kevlar. The quest to preserve the lives of soldiers while inflicting greater damage on the enemy took on a whole new dimension in the 20th century with rise of radio and computer technology. Beginning in World War II with devices like the German made Goliath, basically a remote-control bomb on wheels, scientists and generals alike began in envision a future in which men may not even need to enter the field of battle at all. Drones and rifle wielding robots would dominate the field of battle rather than men in armor with heavy packs of food and water. Today, we are witnessing the beginning of this new era of combat.
Anyone who grew up watching anime or modern science fiction movies is familiar with the concept of the mech – a mechanical suit piloted by a human being that allows the pilot to go places and accomplish tasks that would be impossible on his own. Long considered to be a wild dream or at least grossly impractical, an actual mech suit may be available for purchase in near future.
Working for Hankook Mirae, a South Korean robotics company, designer Vitaly Bulgarov has developed the Method-2. It is a 13ft tall, 1.5 ton marvel of modern engineering that bears more than a little resemblance to the mechs utilized by the Marines is James Cameron’s Avatar. While the look may be accidental, the Hollywood connection is not. Bulgarov actually made a name for himself designing robotics for blockbuster like Transformers, Ghost in the Shell, and the Robocop remake. Having spent years creating believable robots for the entertainment industry he is now taking that expertise and applying to real world technology.
Hankook Mirae is currently developing the Method 2 with the intention of putting it to work in environments too extreme for human to go unprotected, such as Antarctica, or disaster areas. In fact a version in which the legs are replace with tank-like treads is currently being built for use in places like the Fukishima nuclear site. Fukishima is the site of four nuclear reactors that were damaged by the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Other applications would include construction and even space exploration as indicated by the presence of a prototype at a Mars conference sponsored by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. While military uses have not been explicitly discussed, its potential on the battlefield is not difficult to imagine. Though the technology isn’t there yet, it isn’t hard to imagine an armored version with rocket launchers on its shoulders charging through the desert or a forest absorbing rifle fire, dodging tank rounds and dishing out massive amounts of damage to the enemy. Such a picture may be years away from reality but the tracked variant mentioned above could be for military purposes much sooner.
Once available, the Method 2 is expected to be able for purchase at approximately $8.3 million.
Russia is rushing to catch up and surpass the United States with several impressive machines of its own.A number of simple robots are already in the field, including scout robots with small, easily positioned cameras to spy around corners and through low-lying windows. When trouble is found, another remote control vehicle is sent in, one loaded with machines gun, grenade launchers, or whatever else the situation might call for.Other projects coming soon include a remote-controlled tank capable of carrying heavy ordinance and leading a charge on the battlefield and a strength-enhancing exoskeleton.
Most impressive of all the robots Russia has in development is the Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research (FEDOR) project. Built as a joint project with Android Technics and the Advances Research Fund as a rescue robot, FEDOR has already proved highly successful in tasks as diverse as driving a car and installing light-bulbs. This Russian robot has no trouble with stairs or maintaining balance under duress.The robot is able to use hand and power tools with precision (including welding and soldering), turning valves, and even lifting weights. Such capabilities make FEDOR ideal for use in disaster zones, especially recon work inside the highly radioactive sarcophagus built over the wreckage of the Chernobyl reactor that melted down in 1986. The robot is capable of shooting guns with both hands and with accuracy, drawing comparisons to the famous Terminator films and indicating that the Russian military certainly sees battlefield potential in this impressive piece of technology.
Whatever its ultimate use will be, FEDOR is expected to face its biggest test in 2021 when it is scheduled to join the ranks of the nation’s cosmonauts as it flies aboard Russia’s Federation spacecraft. From there, it will be tested on the International Space Station as an aid to astronauts. No doubt Russia’s military and the rest of the world will be keenly interested in the results.
LS3 & Wildcat
In the United States, the military is funding a number of projects explicitly for use on the battlefield. Many of them are currently under development at Boston Dynamics, a robotics company that branched off from the legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). They began working on machines that could duplicate animal movements, but as we shall see, they’ve begun to branch out into making genuine humanoid robots as well. Farthest along in development is the Legged Squat Support System (LS3). Described by chief engineer Kevin Blankespoor as a robotic pack mule, the LS3 is envisioned as a piece of support equipment for Marines in battle, carrying large amounts of gear like food, water, and extra ammunition that would normally go on the Marines’ backs, slowing them down and tiring them out faster than they would like.
The LS3 is designed to allow the robot to travel almost anywhere, handling mountains and snow with ease. It also has three main modes. The first is a follow mode in which it can be set to follow a particular person or target at a prescribed distance. There is also a fully autonomous mode in which the LS3 can be told to travel a given distance in any direction will navigate its own way to the destination. Finally, there is a remote control mode should a situation arise in which it is best for the machines to be under the direct control of a Marine.
Similar to the LS3 is the smaller and faster Wildcat. This relatively small robot can gallop like a horse and make surprisingly sharp turns given its size. While both devices are still in development, it is possible that they are something like them will be in use by the US military in the coming years, both as cargo carriers and weapons platforms.