July 16, 2009

Flesh-Eating Robots, Ook! Well... Not Exactly

Hatched by Dafydd

This Fox News story got picked up by Drudge, likely because of its lurid title: Upcoming Military Robot Could Feed on Dead Bodies. It really begs for an exclamation mark, doesn't it? Maybe even an illustrative graphic as Wolf Howling might use; Goya springs to mind...

Goya - Saturn devouring his son

Goya - Saturn devouring his son

For that very reason, I initially didn't bother clicking on it. At the urging of occasional collaborator (with us, I mean, not our enemies) Brad Linaweaver, I finally read the story, then clicked over and read the long presentation by the company itself, Robotic Technologies, Inc.

It is an interesting concept: an "unmanned ground vehicle" (UGV), similar to the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs -- Predators, for example) we've all come to know and love. But as I suspected, the horror-movie touch about the robot eating "animal and human corpses" appears to have been invented out of whole cloth by a Fox News writer who gives the impression of being a 12 year old fanboy who stumbled over a cache of old E.C. comics.

It's true that in addition to other, more traditional fuels (kerosene, butane, gasoline, etc.), the robot -- charmingly named Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot, or EATR -- can also "ingest," that is, burn, biomass. While technically, animal flesh (including humans) can be considered biomass, in reality the most likely forraged fuel would be plant matter, not flesh. I don't know much about Rankine cycle steam engines, which is what powers the EATR; but I would guess that it would take an awful lot of battery power to saw an animal carcass into pieces small enough to "eat"... and it would be hard to burn something with that high a water content in a combustion chamber that generally doesn't exceed 1050°F (565°C), about 200-300° less than an automobile engine.

But eating what it's intended to eat -- grass, wood chips, paper, even a discarded bottle of vegetable oil, depending on how bright the NIST 4D/RCS Autonomous Intelligent Control eventually becomes -- it would be a very nice platform for very long-term missions, months perhaps -- missions that range from surveillance, depending on how quiet Robot Technologies can make it, to unmanned but almost certainly human-directed attack.

In theory, it can scale up to the size of a modified Humvee or small armored vehicled, with perhaps an artillery piece, rocket launchers, or a Gatling-gun antipersonnel weapon, à la the M61 Vulcan (which can fire about 100 rounds per second). It could be a devastating weapon in combat, and of course it would be immune to chemical or biological attack -- though a firehose or waterdrop might quench its fire.

Let's be clear, though; this is not a potential Bolo tank. Burning biomass is not the future of heavy tanks (or super-super-super-super-super-heavy, if we're talking about the Keith Laumer series). Even if it were to hew down and "ingest" the General Sherman redwood, I doubt that would supply enough steam power to moving something weighing as much as a guided-missile frigate even fifty centimeters. For moving at speed, I think you would need a fission power plant -- a big one.

However, used as a ground analog of the Predator, it can be very effective and useful, especially in extremely rugged terrain that is difficult passage for vehicles with human cargo. (There are places in Afghanistan and Pakistan where the most effective military vehicle is a horse. Or even a mule.)

But I will make two predictions that I think are pretty solid:

  1. If this vehicle is finally deployed (and I think it will be; it's all down to engineering details now), it will never be given autonomy to acquire its own targets and attack them; it will always require human authorization to proceed.

The reason for this one should be clear: politics. Imagine the hue and cry were one of these Death EATRs to mistakenly fire upon and kill or maim a group of American military personnel, or a group of non-combatant children or nuns or somesuch. And don't try to tell me the system will be perfect and never make such a mistake! Murphy's Law operates in military equipment as well as, and possibly better than, in civilian arenas.

But if every shot is confirmed by a trained human being before firing, then even if he makes a terrible and tragic mistake, Americans won't blame the EATR or demand it be mothballed; they'll blame the "pilot," perhaps demanding that he be mothballed.

  1. And if this vehicle is finally deployed, I absolutely guarantee that it will be designed in such a way that it will never, ever, ever "ingest" a human being... any human, no matter how long dead, and no matter what side (if any) he fought on.

This one should be even more obvious: Just imagine the grisly YouTube!

But it is an interesting concept, one that is inevitable, given the success of our UAVs. I presume we'll also soon have:

  • UWVs (water)
  • ULVs (littoral -- that is, amphibious)
  • USVs (submersibles)
  • And eventually the trickiest of all, UUVs -- unmanned urban vehicles.

That last might have to have "walking" capability; I envison something like Dr. Octopus from Marvel Comics (with a great movie visualization in Spider Man 2), walking across city streets, stepping over obstacles, or even clawing its way up the side of a building. Each of these is just a variant on the original UAV design, though each has its own engineering details to overcome.

But the one I'm waiting for with baited hook is the UTV; that would be a real Godsend to me: the unmanned taxi vehicle, or driverless limousine. Golly, would I love to just loll back in my seat, reading a book and sipping a soda, and have the car take me right to my destination! Maybe even via a combination of air travel and street driving for the last, little bit. (The truly great Schwarzenegger science-fiction movie, the Sixth Day, had one of these babies.)

That future cannot possibly come too soon for me.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, July 16, 2009, at the time of 12:20 AM

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The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

I think the worry about it 'eating' dead soldiers is misplaced. Worry instead that this machine will find Endangered Biomass to ingest! Imagine the cacophony when EATR ingests a Thornmint or a Muntz Onion... or God help us, a Large Flowered Fiddleneck!

The project would be over in a heartbeat. The Military will have to recruit Conservationist Biologists to review any biomass before it's ingested. The Soldier Of Tomorrow will belong to the Sierra Club.

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 16, 2009 3:58 AM

The following hissed in response by: snochasr

AFAIK, your "UUV" (submersible) robot is already deployed as a marine minesweeper. It's the cousin of the robotic vacuum cleaner you can buy for your home, or the robotic mower you can buy for your lawn. And a Rankine engine can be pretty quiet.

The above hissed in response by: snochasr [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 16, 2009 8:43 AM

The following hissed in response by: AD

"...unmanned urban vehicles..."

Oh, you mean like what we encounter on L.A.'s freeways and streets every moment of every day?

The above hissed in response by: AD [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 16, 2009 10:23 AM

The following hissed in response by: BlueNight

I remember an SF story - I think it was in an anthology - where some guy was flying along in his autocar when he was trapped by some phenomenon for several weeks (or years!), survived due to perfect food and water recycling (yuck!), and got several recorded instances on tape of winning the most difficult form of solitaire known to man.

The above hissed in response by: BlueNight [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 19, 2009 10:56 PM

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