The difference between the first DARPA robotic Grand Challenge in March 2004, and last week’s race was nothing less than breathtaking. The lead ‘bot in 2004 barely made it 7 miles before stalling out on a switchback after running through a fence. This year five ‘bots made it all the way to the end of the 132 mile course and all but one of the entries beat the 7 mile distance of the 2004 leader.
By any measure, this is dramatic progress and it puts into sharp focus the question of how soon highly autonomous robots will enter into military use, the stated goal behind the DARPA initiative. In organizing the Grand Challenge, DARPA expressed the hope that robotic vehicles might one day take over the dull and dangerous task of ferrying supplies, minimizing the number of human operators at risk in convoy duty.
Left unstated in DARPA’s publicity materials is the prospect of robotic warriors, or Myrmidons, after the mythic warriors of Greek mythology, famous for their fierce and blind loyalty in battle. Truly autonomous robotic myrmidons sound like the stuff of science fiction, but the speed of progress evidenced by the Grand Challenge may be an indicator that these robo-killers could arrive sooner than we expect.
In fact, primitive tele-operated Myrmidons have already found their way into the US arsenal. The first tele-robotic “kill” occurred in November 2002 when a Predator hunter-killer UAV operating over Yemen fired a Hellfire missile, destroying a vehicle carrying suspected terrorists. Since then hunter-killer UAVs have played a growing role in US operations, and just this year, have been joined by “SWORD” (for “Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems”) ‘bots, ground-based tracked telerobotic gun-slingers capable of being fitted with automatic rifles and other ordinance. However, I’ll bet that we are going to see a vast expansion in airborne robots long before they become ubiquitous on the ground.
So ultimately, the question is not whether, but merely when autonomous Myrmidons will appear on the battlefield. In Greek mythology, the Myrmidons were originally worker ants, transformed by Zeus into human warriors, and ultimately brought to Troy by Achilles where according to legend they were among the fiercest warriors on the field. The myth suggests an unsettling prospect where today’s simple tele-robotic devices might just rapidly race down the innovation curve, delivering something much more fearful sooner than we expect. Ready or not, Myrmidons appear to be marching — or perhaps first, flying– into our future.