- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2005

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, N.J. (AP) — The rain is turning to snow on a blustery January morning, and all the men gathered in a parking lot surely would prefer to be inside.

But the weather couldn’t matter less to the robotic sharpshooter they are here to watch as it splashes through puddles, the barrel of its machine gun leading the way.

The Army is preparing to send 18 of these remote-controlled robotic warriors to fight in Iraq beginning in March or April.

Made by a small Massachusetts company, the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems (SWORDS) will be the first armed robotic vehicles to see combat.

Military officials like to compare the roughly 3-foot-high robots favorably to human soldiers: They don’t need to be trained, fed or clothed. They can be boxed up and warehoused between wars. They never complain. And there are no letters to write home if they meet their demise in battle.

But officials are quick to point out that these are not the autonomous killer robots of science fiction. A SWORDS robot fires only when its human operator presses a button after identifying a target on video shot by the robot’s cameras.

“The only difference is that [the human operator’s] weapon is not at his shoulder, it’s up to half a mile a way,” said Bob Quinn, general manager of Talon robots for Foster-Miller Inc., the Waltham, Mass., company that makes the SWORDS. As one Marine fresh out of boot camp told Mr. Quinn upon seeing the robot: “This is my invisibility cloak.”

The $200,000 SWORDS will carry standard-issue squad automatic weapons, either the M249, which fires 5.56 mm rounds at a rate of 750 per minute, or the M240, which can fire about 700 to 1,000 7.62 mm rounds per minute. The SWORDS can fire about 300 rounds using the M240 and about 350 rounds using the M249 before needing to reload.

All its optics equipment — the four cameras, night vision and zoom lenses — were already in the Army’s inventory.

Its developers say its tracks, like those on a tank, can overcome rock piles and barbed wire, though it needs a ride to travel faster than 4 mph.

Running on lithium ion batteries, it can operate for one to four hours at a time, depending on the mission. Operators work the robot using a 30-pound control unit that has two joysticks, a handful of buttons and a video screen. Mr. Quinn says that configuration eventually may be replaced by a “Gameboy”-type of controller hooked up to virtual reality goggles.

The Army has been testing it over the past year at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey and the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to ensure it won’t malfunction and can stand up to radio jammers and other countermeasures.

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