The birth of U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — called RPVs at the time — began in the late 1950s. But the UAV market really took off at the beginning of this century, driven by the unconventional nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan but enabled by rapid progress in relevant technologies for engines, power sources, sensor miniaturization, C2 and networking.
Now almost everyone is used to the idea of the military operating UAVs even if we don’t all agree about how they are being employed. If the FAA and the commercial marketplace have their way, we will be seeing lots of UAVs in the skies over the United States. While Jeff Bezos may not be able to realize his dream of small, helicopter-like UAVs delivering packages to America’s front door anytime soon, it is virtual certainty that a host of government organizations and agencies (e.g., state and local law enforcement, first responders, Coast Guard and Border Patrol, Forest and Park Services and Fish and Wildlife Service) will find them indispensable. So too will farmers, ranchers, energy companies, the fishing industry and others who have a need for ongoing aerial surveillance and support.
What has taken place over the past decade or so for UAVs is about to occur in the area of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). Law enforcement has employed UGVs for quite a few years, primarily for high risk activities such as bomb disposal. Again, the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly the proliferation of improvised explosive devices, led the military to grab onto the potential offered by UGVs with both hands. In just a few short years, robots were proliferating on the ground just as they were in the air. IRobot, the same outfit that makes the Roomba autonomous floor vacuuming robot, has been a pioneer in the area of UGVs for defeating IEDs, tactical reconnaissance and base security. Foster-Miller, since acquired by QinetiQ North America, was the first company to arm a UGV. These companies and others also developed man-portable and even very small, throwable UGVs that have been deployed in combat. At the same time, the Pentagon has been experimenting with larger UGVs that could serve as the equivalent of pack mules for dismounted soldiers, the Squad Mission Support System, a six-wheeled robot and truck-sized UGV to take the place of manned vehicles in logistics convoys. Many of the leading names in defense technology including Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman are working to develop UGVs large and small.
Now the U.S. Army is considering bringing lots more UGVs to the battlefield. There have been numerous reports of late that the Army is looking at ways of reducing the manning of its brigade combat teams and substituting UGVs for live personnel. It may not be long before even armed UGVs are fielded, particularly in such areas as indirect fire support and air and missile defense.
Don’t be surprised if someday soon a UGV drives up to your front door. Google recently acquired Boston Dynamics, a company that designs and builds two and four-legged robots which behave in many ways like a person or large animal. This company is at the cutting edge of human simulations and robotics. In addition to their obvious role in law enforcement and emergency response, UGVs for package delivery, long-haul transportation of goods, private security, farming and even street cleaning are probably just around the corner. Japan, worried about its declining population, is experimenting with robots to provide care for the sick and elderly. Someday, Boston Dynamics may be able to provide those with pet allergies a robotic dog or cat.
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