Many recent blockbuster films and best-selling books depict the robotic apocalypse and have shed a negative light on military robotics. However, not all unmanned system development is aimed toward building autonomous machines that spy on foreign nations or neutralize enemy threats. The United States Department of Defense (DoD) continues to aggressively invest in developing unmanned systems and technologies because robots can perform the tasks that are too dull, dirty, or dangerous to warrant warfighter intervention.

The nine Joint Capability Areas of unmanned system development, defined by the DoD in its Unmanned System Integrated Roadmap.
By 2013, it is estimated that the DoD will spend $8 billion in this area. The majority of research and contracting will go towards developing robots that are ideally suited for autonomous tasks, and which will include more than just robots that pull triggers. It is expected that there will be a proliferation of robots that detect and neutralize improvised explosive devices (IEDs), clear passageways of vegetation, dig trenches, and perform other needed tasks. Over the next few years, it will be important for engineers working on these projects to demonstrate and develop new concepts quickly and efficiently so that new technology does not outpace unmanned system development. To maintain this level of continuous innovation, developers will need to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies and rapid prototyping development platforms.

Military Robots of the Future

In April 2009, the DoD updated its Unmanned System Integrated Roadmap, an official document that projects the evolution and transition of unmanned system technology over the next 25 years. This technology roadmap incorporates a vision and strategy for developing unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and unmanned maritime systems (UMSs). It also identifies nine Joint Capability Areas (JCAs) to provide a sense of how these systems currently, or could in the future, contribute to defense missions.

This NI Compact RIO-based Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot from Vecna Robotics exhibits multiple capability areas, performing search and rescue missions in addition to logistics and heavy lifting.
In the first two JCAs listed in the table below, the DoD projects the adoption of unmanned systems in Battlespace Awareness and Force Application tasks. The robotic examples depicted in these applications are also the typical military robots featured in the mainstream media. At times, these technologies have inspired polarizing debates. For example, should we use UAS drones and weaponized UGVs to suppress and neutralize enemy threats? It is important to note that while the DoD expects to continue creating various levels of autonomy for these unmanned systems for Battlespace Awareness and Force Application tasks, they will likely not become fully automated until “legal, rules of engagement, and safety concerns have all been thoroughly examined and resolved.” (U.S. DoD: FY2009-2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap)