Robots Invade the Battlefield

Lighter, simpler, more versatile creations are coming to a theater of war near you.


Today’s ruggedized robots will go where man has gone before—and where man should no longer have to go. While U.S. defense officials are not ready to fully relinquish warfighting duties to robots, they are on the fast track to acquiring technologies and platforms anticipated to shake up military operations.

The Army’s Strategy for Robotic and Autonomous Systems (RAS) supports robots taking over the three D’s of warfare: dull, dirty and dangerous. The service’s overarching Army Operating Concept lists RAS as an enduring capability to reduce risks to soldiers, increase efficiencies and provide U.S. and coalition forces distinct advantages over adversaries. Other services aim to mirror RAS as the Defense Department builds its inventory of robotics.

Big, heavy, single-focused robots are now a dying breed. These are the types of robots explosive ordnance disposal troops have used for years to detect threats and, most notably, to dismantle the roadside bombs that posed one of the gravest dangers to U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A new wave of battlefield robotics from companies across the globe is addressing the military’s need for more versatile technology. These firms are building multiuse, autonomous, cargo-carrying robots that can plod alongside dismounted infantry troops; they are creating tiny, sensor-laden robots that can jump 30 feet to peek in on an enemy. One has even devised an intelligence-gathering, lightweight robot that is literally in the hands of U.S. troops. Soldiers can throw the Individual Robotic Intelligence System (IRIS), a rugged, nearly 4-pound platform, into just about any space, and it will relay intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) information in real time. The developing brave new world of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) could restructure combat and law enforcement missions by introducing options that significantly improve how forces conduct coordinated missions, maintain communications and obtain intelligence.

“Our vision is that the soldier or the policeman will use it like he’s using a flashlight—and I mean it’s as simple as a flashlight to operate,” says Shahar Abuhazira, CEO of Roboteam, the developer of the IRIS. “It’s one button, very simple to operate, very small and can be carried.” The miniature unmanned system can enter small and confined spaces, above or underground, to explore hazardous areas and convey critical ISR information. It carries a variety of sensors, including high-definition cameras that can stream video and audio for real-time situational awareness. Toss the four-wheeled contraption in any direction, and no matte