Prepared by Galina Vitkova
In 2007 three ground-crawling US war robots SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems) deployed to fight in Iraq, These units were the first remote controlled robots armed with machine guns. In addition to the guns, the SWORDS can be loaded up with the optional X-ray kit to check out suspicious packages or objects. In fact, it was a huge step forward for robotics in warfare. Never before armed robots had been deployed in a war.
SWORDS robots are a modified version of track-wheeled bomb disposal devices in use around the world. Soldiers operate the robots with a specially modified laptop, completed with joystick controls and a ’kill button’ that terminates its functions if it goes awry. The devices are supposed to be most helpful during raids on suspected enemy compounds. Putting the machine in a situation where there is a high risk of an unexpected attack or trap-style explosion may minimise casualties. The SWORDS´ uses are limited by the quality of the terrain and the intensity of the battlefield mission.
While the concept of robots at war conjures images of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator movie character, current models are more mundane. Far from taking on human characteristics, the robots look like small stripped-down tanks (see the picture below).
In Iraq, however, the SWORDS robots were almost immediately pulled off the battlefield, before firing a single shot at the enemy. Nobody knew why until the US Army’s Program Executive Officer for Ground Forces, Kevin Fahey revealed it at the RoboBusiness conference in April 2008 in the USA. Obviously, one of the robots went rogue: “the gun started moving when it was not intended to move” said Fahey. He added there had been chilling incidents in which the SWORDS combat bot had swivelled round and evidently attempted to train its machine-gun on its human comrades. It seems that the incident left people spooked enough to pull the plug on the operation”. In other words, the SWORDS swung around in the wrong direction, and the plug got pulled fast.
Reporters of that time wrote alert American troops succeeded suppressing the traitorous killer robots before the inevitable spree of mechanised massacre began. Fahey didn’t say just how, but conceivably the rogue robots may have been overpowered with help from more trustworthy airborne kill machines, or perhaps prototype electropulse zap bombs.
No humans were hurt, but it seems that the struggle was sufficiently terrifying. It may be some time before American troops are ready to fight alongside robots again.
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