The US military is planning to send armed robotic vehicles into combat in Iraq for the first time. Eighteen of the remotely operated robots, equipped with cameras, will be sent to the combat zone between March and April.
The special weapons observation reconnaissance detection system (SWORDS) is based on the Talon robot, which has been used in troublespots such as Northern Ireland and Iraq to defuse roadside bombs.
The robot can be fitted with standard-issue M249 or M240 rifles, capable of firing 750-1,000 rounds per minute, and has four cameras offering night vision and zoom goggles. However, the device is not capable of firing its weapon autonomously â€” a soldier still has control over its action.
Running on lithium ion batteries, the 1m-tall machine can operate for up to four hours before it needs recharging. The vehicle can travel at up to 4mph and its developer, US firm Foster-Miller, claims it can overcome rock piles and barbed wire.
Developed at a cost of £1.7m and with a price tag of £100,000 per unit, the robot has a number of advantages over the human soldier, including far greater accuracy through the use of a stable platform and electronic targeting â€” plus it does not need feeding, training or clothes.
Another advantage is that between campaigns the robots can be packed in a warehouse until they are needed again.
Boston-based Foster-Miller is owned by Qinetiq. The UK technology specialist bought the company for £92m in September last year.
Also under development to be deployed in Iraq is an unmanned ambulance, called the robotic extraction vehicle (REV). It is 10ft long, so it can carry two stretchers complete with life-support systems beneath an armoured shield. Its manufacturer, Applied Perception, is to unveil a prototype in March.