Magazine article National Defense

Robotics Revolution

Magazine article National Defense

Robotics Revolution

Article excerpt

* Retired Army Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch stood before a room that was packed with military robot manufacturers and told them maybe it was time to move on to civilian markets.

Research, development, test and evaluation money to push Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps ground robot technology forward was drying up, he said.

"Let's not stop and wait until money becomes available. Let's refocus on efforts where there could be opportunities and advance the technology" he said at a National Defense Industrial Association conference.

The past dozen years have seen a revolution in the way robotic systems have been employed by the U.S. military on the ground and in the air.

Concurrently, research continues globally on a host of nonmilitary applications for robotics. Farmers are using automation on tractors and aerial drones for precision agriculture. Japan already has more than 2,000 unmanned helicopters applying pesticides and fertilizer to rice paddies. Automobile manufacturers and Internet giant Google are sinking millions into driverless car concepts. Consumers already have robot vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers.

Lynch was well known before his retirement as a vocal advocate for robots on the battlefield. He was unique in the military as a holder of a master's degree in robotics from MIT, who was also a combatant commander.

He has not lost his enthusiasm for robots on the battlefield. If he had his druthers, an automated machine would carry out every dull, dirty and dangerous task that is performed by a soldier or Marine.

It's just that he doesn't think the military is going to be on the cutting edge of research anymore.

"Rather than focus on military technology to pull commercial applications, why don't we focus on commercial applications that will pull military capabilities?" he asked.

"Maybe we don't have a choice given today's budget environment," he added.

Lynch is now executive director of the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute. There, he wants to push forward the concept of "assistive robotics," he said. As a former general whose troops suffered serious injuries in Iraq, he is a strong proponent of helping wounded warriors, whether they are with bionic prosthetics or assistive robots that can help them do everyday tasks in their homes. The elderly, who may have disabilities but want to continue living independently, can also be a huge potential market for robot makers as the U.S. population ages, he said.

Further R&D is needed in human-robot interfaces, machine vision and control theory for these assistive robots, he said. For example, a paraplegic could control a drone by letting the machine track the movement of his eyeballs.

These technologies, when mature, can come back and help the military, he asserted.

Peter W. Singer, senior fellow at The Brookings Institute and author of the book, "Wired for War," which examines the impact of robots on the battlefield, said it looks as if the civilian side will be taking the lead when it comes to the technology.

"We've long thought of the military role in this space as spinning out technologies to the civilian side, but very soon it may be the military spinning in areas where the civilian side is in the lead. What happened in computers could very well play out with unmanned systems as well," he said. …

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