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The lessons of yesterday and today are driving tomorrow’s robotic programs.

A revolution in Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) is taking place today that focuses on formalizing the permanent integration of ground robots into military organizations within the U.S. Department of Defense and other nations’ military forces as well. Similar activities are likewise cementing the relationship of UGVs to first responder organizations as ground robots continue to prove that they save lives.

The retractable arm of the TALON enables the safe removal of explosive ordnance such as improvised explosive devices. (Photo: Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Robert R. McRill, U.S. Navy)

The future of ground robotics is bright. Tactical UGVs will increasingly influence not only military and law enforcement operations, but other industries as well. While the most common uses for UGVs today are in providing remote reconnaissance and defeating improvised explosive devices (IEDs), robots have supported combat operations for decades. In fact, the forefathers of today’s UGVs were used as assault weapons in World War II.

Early History of Tactical Robots

A TALON robot inspects a suspected improvised explosive device. Robots such as TALON allow warfighters to clear routes quickly without having to wait for Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams to do so. Advancements in LDTO technology are making it possible to control these systems even further removed from the battlefield, increasing Soldier standoff distance. (U.S. Army photo by SGT Giancarlo Casem.)
The story of tactical robots began in 1939 when a French inventor, Adolphe Kégresse (1879 - 1943), invented a lightweight tracked vehicle for delivering demolitions. Following the German invasion of France in May 1940, and the subsequent occupation of Paris, Kégresse’s prototype was discovered by the Germans, who employed the Borgward Company to develop what would become the Sd.Kfz.302 “Goliath”. This was the beginning of remotely controlled tactical vehicles and robots as they are known today.

The Germans focused on remotely delivering demolitions with their small (Sd.Kfz.302/303 “Goliath”), medium (Sd.Kfz.304 “Springer”) and heavy (Sd.Kfz.301 “Borgward IV”) remotely controlled explosive charge carriers, even creating complete units based on manned and unmanned vehicles teaming together. To make use of captured Allied vehicles, the Germans at times added remote control kits to vehicles such as the Vickers Armstrong Universal Carrier, and loaded these with explosives.

The British experimented with several dozen small amphibian robots called “Beetles”, but these swimming/crawling robots, also designed to deliver explosives, likely never saw combat. The Russians employed radio controlled “teletanks” based on control kits added to their standard T-18, T-26, T-38, BT-5 and BT-7 tanks. The battle of Kursk (Jul-Aug 1943) saw both the Germans and the Russians using remotely controlled vehicles against one another. By the end of the war, perhaps as many as 10,000 remotely controlled ground vehicles were used by the Germans and Russians alone.

Today’s Warfighter

Massachusetts State Police officer wearing a Dragon Runner 10 robot during Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.
Following World War II, UGVs saw sporadic use until 2001, when combat operations in Afghanistan and then Iraq began necessitating the employment of large quantities of ground robots to help defeat the widespread use of IEDs. Military robots earned their battle stripes, establishing themselves as essential equipment for modern warfare. QinetiQ North America’s medium sized TALON® robot, for example, has been heavily used by U.S. and ISAF forces to destroy more than 50,000 IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. These TALON robots, numbering close to 5,000 systems fielded to date, are widely employed by military Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams and Combat Engineer route clearance teams to locate and defeat IEDs. TALONs are the most widely used counter-IED robots in the world, and are often equipped with cutting-edge optics, sensors and tools for locating and defeating IEDs.

Small and large robots alike have also played critical roles in Afghanistan and Iraq. The smallest robots, lightweight and throwable, enable a squad to see beyond its current span of observation and into what was formerly dead space, enhancing situational awareness and unit safety. Some small robots employ modular arms and can be used to attack IEDs.

Large robots are used to assist with route clearance missions and even to autonomously carry supplies. These robots are often equipped with advanced sensors to assist with either auton omous navigation or localization of IEDs and other threats before small units are placed in harm’s way.