It’s no secret that militaries around the world are increasingly turning to robots and drones to replace and augment traditional soldiers. We’ve shown you some of the military drones of the future and looked into some pretty creepy underwater eel drones. But there’s a lot more going on above our heads.
Moving Beyond Unmanned Flight
At the moment, drones are primarily a tool of warfare and intelligence gathering that keep operators out of danger. Many of the things that they do could easily be done by a more traditional aircraft, but risking an extremely expensive craft and highly trained pilot isn’t always a good idea. Predator and Reaper drones are used in the Middle East, for US border patrol, and elsewhere around the world, but they really aren’t doing much that hasn’t been done before.
The future could see a big change in that, however. The US Air Force and other militaries around the world are developing technologies that will allow drone operators to do things that they’ve never done before.
Let’s take aerial intelligence gathering for example. Right now, Predator and Reaper drones can fly over a target area and snap pictures or record video with an onboard camera from high altitude. This is especially useful if there’s a risk of enemy fire at lower altitudes. But wouldn’t it be better to be able to get more detailed intelligence? That’s what some drones are promising.
The picture above surfaced in 2010, but it’s a clear indication that the Air Force is looking into small drones that look like birds—the idea is that they’d carry a camera and would be able to move about an area naturally, even landing on telephone wires. The photo or video captured could then be transmitted back to the operators.
Not only could this bird get closer to the action than today’s UAVs, but it could even potentially fly into a building and gather data from there. But why settle for a bird when you could have a bug?
It’s well-known that the Air Force has been working on micro-UAVs for a while now, even establishing a “micro-aviary” at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio where researchers can build and test the insectile drones. The video above gives you an idea of the sorts of things they’re working on: everything from small remote-control helicopters to insect-like UAVs.
Some of the drones that the military has been researching are the size of dragonflies, and could stealthily penetrate an enemy building to gather intelligence or deliver ordnance. NPR reported on a PhD student working on his dissertation at Wright-Patterson—he was bioengineering a tiny wing based on the tobacco hawk, a small moth. The individual fibers in the wing have a diameter of 7 microns. In contrast, a human hair has a diameter of about 75 microns.
Not all of the Air Force’s robots are tiny, though—the X-37B (above) is 29 feet long and looks like a small space shuttle. This experimental spaceplane has flown three unmanned missions, with the longest one seeing it stay in orbit for almost two years. The Air Force has been very tight-lipped about what this craft is capable of, though it seems likely to be a surveillance platform that provides more maneuverability than a satellite. It’s also possible that it could be involved in weapons delivery.
Interestingly, not all of the Air Force’s robots fly. A number of the robots built under the Remote Detection, Challenge, and Response System (REDCAR) are security robots that help secure an airfield. One of the robots, called Scout, can move up to 20 mph over rough terrain on a pre-programmed path, avoid obstacles, and even issue commands like “halt” and “drop your weapon” in over 50 languages. It can also carry an assault rifle, which can be fired by its operator from a distance.
The MDARS and Matilda robots, also products of REDCAR, provide faster and more versatile reconnaissance than Scout, allowing the bigger vehicle to target any potential threats.
Another interesting use of ground-based robots is for ordnance recovery and disposal. A robot at Eglin Air Force Base successfully located and disarmed the fuse on a 2,000-pound bomb that had been dropped through a concrete slab on the base’s test range, allowing the controllers to stay at a safe distance. The potential benefit of a robot like this is obvious—it could be used to recover items from test ranges that could be repurposed for later use and it could help find and disarm unexploded ordnance from previous engagements, without putting service members in harm’s way.
One of the Air Force’s robots that’s been in the news lately actually wasn’t developed by the Air Force at all, but is being adopted in many of the service’s hospitals. The robot is manufactured by Xenex, and is nicknamed “Saul.” When placed in a room, the robot uses Xenon gas to emit ultraviolet-C radiation, which kills pathogens ranging from common bugs like C. diff to ebola within a few minutes. Exactly why Saul is called a robot and not just a device or a machine is beyond me—it may just be a marketing ploy. But that doesn’t make it any less impressive!
The Air Force, along with countless other military branches around the world, is pushing the field of robotics and drone aviation forward at an astonishing rate. Although it seems unlikely that we’ll see an Air Force made up completely of robots and drones—at least in our lifetimes—the possibility seems less crazy than it used to.
Until then, though, the USAF will continue to research and develop robots for intelligence gathering, weapons delivery, base security, ordnance disposal, and various other tasks in order to increase efficiency and decrease the amount of time that warfighters spend in the line of fire.
What do you think of the Air Force’s robotic technology? Do you feel safe knowing that our country is being defended, in large part, by robots? Or are we headed toward a robot apocalypse? Share your thoughts below!