Peter W. Singer at HacDC.

17 March 2016

Forget moblogging. It’s too much hassle to be workable because it never works, and it wrecks my formatting. I just got back from HacDC, where tonight Peter Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century presented on the topic of applied military robotics. While it seems a bit cliche’ to say this, they aren’t science fiction anymore, military robots are actually recent history. Drones and teleoperated robots have been in use in Iraq and Afghanistan since the get go, and the last official count has over seven thousand robots in use overseas. From tank-like rovers that can push and pull stopped vehicles around to robots designed to assist in defusing IEDs, they’re not exactly a common sight but they’ve proven helpful enough that units of soldiers in the field have written thank-you notes to companies like iRobot for the Packbot.

We’ve all heard of the PredatorReaper drones, which to date have seen something like 400,000 hours total of flight time since deployment in 1995, but there are some other units out there which are downright amazing, such as a flat remotely controlled robot about the size of a garbage can lid that a soldier can heave into a building, scoot off of a rooftop at top speed and fall thirty feet to the ground, and even submerge itself in a stream to maneuver undetected and still operate. Or a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) about the size and shape of a wind-up glider that is launched by hand, propelled by an electric motor, and remotely controlled from a command center.

There are even scarier things going on out there – the US military aren’t the only ones with drones of various sorts. A number of ~~mercenary organizations~~ private military contracting companies are known to deploy them for various purposes, as are some political groups known to make big waves internationally, like Hamas. Drones that don’t belong to the US have been shot down a few times in the Middle East and they’re even running into improvised remotely controlled robots packing antipersonnel devices. One story that Dr. Singer told involved a skateboard that had been fitted with motors and a remote control rig. A unit of soldiers watched it rolling down the street toward them until one realized that it was rolling into the wind rather than with it. He didn’t give much in the way of specifics, but it’s said that the soldier probably saved the life of everyone he was with with that one detail.

Oh, and there’s one more little thing that I’d like to mention: it’s one thing for a bunch of Brazilian RF hackers to use older military comsats to relay pirate signals, but quite another to see bomb disposal robots in the field hacked, stuffed full of plastique, and sent back to base. The soldiers lived but they had a hell of a time figuring out what blew up; it was the distinctive tracks left by the bomb disposal robot which clued them in.

Carl from the Robotcast was on site filming tonight, so I’ll post a link to the episode as soon as he puts it online. Simply amazing things are afoot these days.