By April Dudash
Sgt. Gary Barrett has a boxy suitcase open in his lap. He fidgets with the buttons and toggles, concentrating as a robotic arm moves slowly on a dissected screen. Fifteen feet away, the arm clamps onto Spc. Stephen Chaplin's office chair and starts rolling him into a corner of the 192nd Ordnance Battalion (EOD)'s grated lockers.
"You're in time-out," Barrett says, grinning, as the TALON robot's treads whir to a stop.
The robots are part of the battalion family here on Fort Bragg, where explosive ordnance disposal teams that deploy with brigade combat teams or special forces groups also take along an unmanned ground vehicle on their truck.
The technology of UGVs is still years behind unmanned aerial vehicles, but it's come along way from the 1980s RadioShack models. The Army is taking a serious look at embedding robots at the squad level, making it a commonplace tool during deployments in the years ahead.
Now, 2,200 systems are deployed to Afghanistan, and 2,200 are being used back home for training, according to the Robotic Systems Joint Project Office.
RS JPO is the centralized training, repair and distribution point for Army and Marine Corps robotics. It's essentially a one-stop shop for anything related to UGVs.
The RS JPO keeps track of how many of its robotic systems have been destroyed since October 2005, a number it says equals at least 760 lives saved.
The next step is to create an integrated family of robots by 2020. There are 14 RS JPO sites around the world right now, and the military is looking to add 10 more within the next 18 months.
Robots are moving toward fully autonomous Humvees and systems so small and rugged they can be thrown through a second-story window to record and stream surveillance video.
Col. Matthew Russell deployed as the 18th Engineer Brigade commander in 2008. His six battalions used robots to check sewer lines, streets and electrical connections in Mosul in northern Iraq.
"As a former brigade commander, I found my robotics invaluable. I would have lost far more without them," Russell said.
U.S. Army Special Operations Command is working on the SANDI project, a fully autonomous Humvee that can tow a roller as well as carry sensors and high-resolution cameras. The special operations community has also been one of the biggest advocates for throwable robots weighing as little as a pound. Slightly heavier models, such as the Armadillo V2, Dragon Runner and 110 FirstLook, will enter Fort Bragg's training curriculum in April.
"I see these being maybe another revolution in warfare, the way we were able to combine wireless communications in World War I and World War II with mounted maneuver," said retired Special Forces Maj. Al Sebile, the Fort Bragg RS JPO liaison officer.
The goal is to standardize and consolidate robotics systems so they can all run on the same power and communicate with each other. USASOC has had an explosion of robotics usage, for example, but those robots can't transmit data to each other, said RS JPO project manager Lt. Col. David Thompson.
The robots are even controlled differently. Some are operated with Xbox controllers, and some use Oakleys with tiny screens embedded in the sunglasses. Smartphone technology is also being used now as control units.
"There aren't that many robot technicians out there to nab, to hire," Sebile said. "We find them just simply by osmosis, the guys who took the training, who took an interest to the focus, who spend their own time learning and using them."
Unlike unmanned aerial vehicles, which have little to no competition in the air, ground systems must constantly consider obstacles and an active civilian population.
And then there's the challenge of convincing soldiers that robots are worth the trouble.
Soldiers with the 192nd Ordnance Battalion said the first adjectives on their robot wish list are for them to be lightweight, small enough for a backpack and durable. Following that, the robot needs compatible batteries and cameras with lights and night vision.
Sgt. Sean Taylor, with Fort Bragg's 767th Ordnance Company, 192nd Ordnance Battalion (EOD), said he has deployed recently with Special Forces to Afghanistan. The length of the mission determined if they brought the robots along.
"You had to choose between water, food and gear to carry on your back or a robot that you may or may not use," Taylor said.
During his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2007, he watched as a robot they deployed to check some wires underneath a truck blew up.
With a robot, a soldier "doesn't have to get blown up to drive a resupply out to a location," Sebile said.
Of course losing a robot back home during a training exercise isn't taken lightly. The robots cost anywhere from $125,000 to $175,000 each.
"We take it, and we push it as far as it can go," Taylor said, "whether it be training or an actual mission."