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SWORDS ? Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems ? & Robotic Warfare

Whenever you ask someone about robots being used to kill people, they almost without fail, think of the Terminator movies. Those few that don't, usually think of Star Wars droids, or other humanoid killing machines.

Currently, we barely have two legged robots that can handle office buildings or race tracks, so these fantasies are still just fantasies. Robots deployed in war, to kill the enemy, that, is not a fantasy, and more are being produced every year.

The US Congress ordered in 2000 that a third of the ground vehicles and a third of deep-strike aircraft in the military must become robotic within a decade. This spurred on innovation and development via DARPA funding across the board. That the US military will meet the deadline is immensely doubtful at this point, however, it will certainly be achieved within the decade following that.

Robotic warriors on the laboratory floor and in the test range, is a decades old process, but the ability to have robots fight alongside troops in an actual war, began with the current Iraq-US war, and with the SWORDS robot, in 2005.

A SWORDS unit with control laptop

In 2005, in a conversation with Gordon Johnson, leader of leads robotics efforts at the Joint Forces Command research centre in Suffolk, Vancouver, stated:

"They don't get hungry. They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.

"The lawyers tell me there are no prohibitions against robots making life-or-death decisions. I have been asked what happens if the robot destroys a school bus rather than a tank parked nearby. We will not entrust a robot with that decision until we are confident they can make it."

Now SWORDS itself is not a robot, it is a waldo, a tele-operated device, which responds to commands. It has no real brain, but it is completely compatible with one. That is to say, the SWORD unit has been designed in such a way as that it does not care whether the data stream coming to it, is from a human controlling a laptop, or a machine intelligence. In either case, the SWORD system supplies the operating intelligence with enough sensory data in the form of vision and sound, to make a decision about a valid target or not. With such waldoes deployed in battlefields in increasing frequency, it makes integrating AI much, much smoother than could otherwise be possible.

Back in 2005, Joint Forces Command planners stated robot soldiers are going to think, see and react increasingly like humans. In the beginning, they are remote-controlled, looking and acting like lethal toy trucks. As the technology develops, they may take many shapes. And as their intelligence grows, so will their autonomy For now, they are not particularly autonomous, with a handful of exceptions, none of those this model.

As a waldo, SWORD is a good one, and shows the trail other robots are starting to exhibit. Rather than rebuild from scratch each time, keep using the same control system, motion and sensor equipment, and just bolt different weaponry on top. It is through interchangable parts on a standardised base, that these waldoes become truly ubiquitous to combat operations.

SWORDS can be fitted with almost any weapon, wired into its hardware.

There will be no further SWORDS made. Six were originally deployed to Iraq, and three are still serving there. However, the same technology is being used, vastly improved, in the SWORDS-2 or MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) robots, under creation now.

Ultimately, when these are in use in the theatre of war, with every offensive, and occupation scenario, it will only be a matter of changing operators, to flick from a human with a laptop, to the laptop itself, controlling a remote, disposable waldo, with the purpose to kill.

References & Further Reading

Foster Miller, creators of the original SWORDS

A New Model Army Soldier Rolls Closer to Battle (2005)

SWORDS - First Robots To Break Asimov's First Law Of Robotics

Staff Comments


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