Truth be told, I was pretty unimpressed by Chimp the robot for at least the first half hour. Chimp looks like a character from Transformers. At 5ft tall and weighing 443lb, it has a red metal shell, tank-like treads for feet and arms with a three-pronged pincer that can each lift the weight of a smallish man. But it took the robot several minutes to get out of a car and when it tried to open a door, it fell over and broke the frame. Chimp was competing for the $2m first prize in the final of a US government-sponsored competition held last month where the robots had to complete eight tasks that mimicked the conditions at the Fukushima nuclear disaster, such as turning off a valve and cutting a hole in a wall with a drill. Many of the robots tumbled, sometimes comically. They moved so slowly one of the organizers likened it to “watching paint dry”.
But, after a while, as I started to understand what was going on, I became mesmerised. There was no one standing beside Chimp with a joystick, manipulating the robot’s every movement. Instead, Chimp’s head and body are packed with cameras, sensors and processors that allow it to generate a 3D model of its environment, which it sends back to a control team. “If it is a task that is familiar, we can say ‘grab that drill or turn that valve’,” says Tony Stentz, a Carnegie Mellon university professor who runs Chimp. Or to put it more bluntly, the robot was making many of the decisions itself.
The US military is currently looking for robot specialists to build swarms of war drones that work together without the need to be individually controlled by pilots on the ground.
It’s yet another milestone in the shift towards building the sorts of robot armies we’ve grown used to seeing in science fiction.
So far, autonomous robots have played a minor role in warfare – with a limited number of drones carrying out aerial bombing in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as robots being used for bomb disposal and surveillance.
However, defence agencies across the world are investing heavily in technology that can reduce bloodshed and automate acts of war, with one senior American officer saying he could replace a quarter of troops with robots and remote-controlled vehicles.
There are also moves being made to develop cyborg soldiers – humans and animals augmented by technology.
1. Bomb-disposal bots
Bomb disposal is a highly-skilled and risky profession, so it makes complete sense to let a robot get up close and personal with the explosives, while the human commander can watch and give commands from afar.
iRobot’s 710 Kobra is designed to detonate bombs from a safe distance, controlled via a touchscreen app.
2. Stealthy spybots
Teeny tiny robots can creep into small spaces to spy on enemy lines and check for bombs. RHex is a small, sturdy six-legged robot with a camera that can climb over rocks, through mud and vegetation and up slopes. It has night vision cameras for stealth missions.
3. Swarming drone ships
We’ve got the skies covered with drones, but what about the seas? The US Navy has been working on a swarm of robot boats that work together autonomously to overwhelm a target.
The boats are designed to follow a bigger boat like a pack of guard dogs and then attack on command using weapons if necessary.
4. Sleepless sentries
Along border between North and South Korea are dotted weaponised robot sentries that are alert 24 hours per day. It can detect intruders using machine vision and fire at targets three miles away. The system requires no human presence.
5. Drone aircraft carriers
DARPA is exploring the idea of creating an airborne mothership that could launch and recover multiple small drones.
The sky-based aircraft carrier would be useful for releasing surveillance and killing missions without putting pilots at risk.
6. Cyborg super soldiers
Instead of replacing humans with robots, why not augment humans with wearable computers, helmet visors with a heads-up display and night vision as well as robotic exoskeletons for super-human strength.
A number of neuroscience techniques are also being tested to improve alertness and allow for mind-controlled weapons.