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The Marine Corps’ robotic combat teams reach the next phase of testing

Boston Dynamics and its terrifying BigDog pack mule robot might not have taken the military world by storm as some predicted it would, but that doesn’t mean the military is giving up on autonomous robots — not by a long shot. The Marine Corps announced a new round of testing for its promising Unmanned Tactical Autonomous Control and Collaboration (UTACC) robotic combat assistance program. It could help make troops safer, give them better battlefield awareness, and even collaborate with other autonomous systems so fewer troops are needed in the first place.

The UTACC (I’ve decided that this is pronounced YOUtack) program apparently includes a number of different robotic solutions, each crucially designed to interact intelligently with the others. One might notice an enemy, signaling another to start following that enemy from far above. In the testing revealed this week, they tried out little rolling robot packed with sensors, various communications systems, and a quadcopter drone on its back. According to its creators, when this “ground and air robot” detects a problematic hole in its sight, it can automatically launch the air unit and stitch the readings together into one useful, unbroken picture for soldiers and commanders.

This robot was used in the tests to search through a simulated urban environment, launching as needed and, hopefully, alerting testers when it spots a hiding enemy. There’s no word on how well the robot actually did at this test, or what criteria it is programmed to use for the identification of enemies versus non-combatants.

This is all part of the Distributed Real-time Autonomously Guided Operations Engine, or DRAGON, which allows what the military calls “data to decision services.” This involves letting the robots take actions automatically — obviously, the decision to take lethal action is the most extreme version, but it could also extend to things like pro-actively re-arming a vehicle without being having to be asked to do so. It also means that soldiers should be able to ask a robot companion for an item or task, and trust that the robot can figure out how to deliver on that request without having to explain how to achieve the goal.

At the same event, presenters also mentioned a cargo loading and off-loading robot that could save marines precious time when moving out, and delivering that cargo up to 800 meters over rough terrain, Ars Technica reports. With DRAGON technology, this could be as simple as “move X thing to Y place,” or, perhaps, “Keep X thing stocked in Y place, making requisitions and scheduling deliveries as necessary.”

This is admittedly a small innovation in the scheme of prior military robot promises, like a full-featured robot squad-mate to carry equipment up a mountain and keep up with the men the whole way. That may be the reason for UTACC’s preliminary success, however. The military is finding it that it can wring surprising efficiency gains out of relatively minor robotic abilities. These loader robots can’t carry that equipment up a mountain with a bunch of soldiers, for instance. But while we’re waiting around for a robot that can, the military is busy using less-impressive robots to get an extra five supply runs per 10-hour window.

Robots are coming to the battlefield, but despite legitimate fears of killer autonomous drones and robots, we don’t need to imagine killing machines to revolutionize war zones. The number of human American actors needed in a combat zone could be about to plummet — and if it does, the policy obsession with avoiding a “boots on the ground” scenario, with lots of deployed American troops, could be a trumped-up nightmare.

Soon, American power and American lives could be two separate, disconnected concepts.

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