Home / Industry / Post-26/11, unmanned vehicles ignite interest

New Delhi: Not very long ago, in the Afghan theatre of war, the US Army’s method of clearing caves of bombs was so low-tech that it was practically no-tech: A young soldier with a stick, a gun and a flashlight. “Oh, and he’d have a rope tied around his waist," Joseph Dyer, a division president of iRobot Inc., says wryly. “So that, you know, if anything went wrong, they could haul him back out."

In 2004, though, the soldier began to be taken out of the equation. That year, 162 robots were deployed to find and dispose of explosive devices, iRobot’s PackBot among them. It was the start of an unmanned battle thrust that reached its technological apogee in the targeted strikes of armed Predator drones. Last August, a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban leader in Pakistan; the drone’s images were so clear, according to one report, that they captured Mehsud’s intravenous drip, from a height of two miles (3.2km), as he rested on his terrace.

The publicity accorded to the US drones—as well as the realization, in hindsight, of how valuable robots could have been during the terrorist attacks of 26/11—ignited interest in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) at the 2010 Defexpo last week. At the previous Defexpo in 2008, one participant recalls, there were only two or three exhibitors talking about any unmanned vehicles at all. This year, however, scaled-down replicas of UAVs stood on pedestals in nearly every hall, and UGVs conducted demos for surprisingly well-informed visitors.

The philosophy of war, experts agree, is shifting rapidly. Robots, used until recently just to neutralize bombs, are now incorporated into infantry. Last year, in his book Wired for War, a defence scholar Peter Singer outlined a future in which “our wars are…handed over to machines". Even with present-day technology, casualty rates can be brought down significantly. “We hear a statistic like: 52% of the US Army’s deaths are in the first contact with the enemy," Dyer says. “And we think: What a great job for robots!"

In front of Dyer’s stall, two of his robots do their thing. The PackBot, which looks like an overhead projector on steroids, has an arm that extends out many feet, ending in a grip that can handle and dismantle bombs. The Negotiator, a flat creature with a glass dome full of circuitry, is a reconnaissance robot that can crawl on its treads into suspicious rooms and send back images. “It would have been ideal for 26/11, in the hotels," says Guptha Sreekantha, iRobot’s managing director in India.

The National Security Guard is currently testing a PackBot model out, Dyer says. He is one of several exhibitors at the Defexpo to claim that the Indian defence forces have expressed keen interest in unmanned vehicles, a trend that M.M. Pallam Raju, the Union minister of state for defence, confirms. “Our services and intelligence agencies have suddenly realized the value of (UAVs and UGVs)," Raju said on the sidelines of Defexpo.

Analysts such as Bharat Verma, a retired captain and the editor of the Indian Defence Review, cite the same internal and external uses of UAVs that Raju does. “That kind of intelligence is crucial," Verma says. “We can look inside enemy territory and even see a guy drinking a glass of milk in his house."

None of the unmanned vehicles being pitched to India is armed, mostly because such sales are restricted by the governments of these foreign manufacturers. Instead, the UAVs at Defexpo were purely surveillance machines.

Sepp Dabringer, Schiebel’s area manager for India, sits next to what he calls his “camcopter"—a white helicopter, not quite as long as a Tata Nano, capable of flying for eight hours within a 50km-radius and returning to land on any flat surface. “We’ve sold 130 of these to 15 countries in the last four years," Dabringer says. “The German and French navies have bought it, and Boeing sources it from us, paints its name on it, and sells it to the US forces." Recently, the Indian Navy tested Schiebel’s camcopter, and Dabringer is sounding out the Border Security Force, for whom he insists it is ideal.

More tireless than rotor-winged aircraft such as the camcopter are fixed-wing UAVs, of which the Predator drone is an example. The Defence Research and Development Organisation is, at present, developing its own fixed-wing UAV, the Rustom. The first flight of the Rustom prototype, last November, did not go well; it crashed, after a “misjudgement of altitude", in an airfield near Hosur, Tamil Nadu.

Elsewhere in the world, UAV development has progressed “in leaps and bounds", says Woolf Gross, a corporate director at Northrop Grumman Corp. Prices have dropped —into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for UAVs like the camcopter—and the capacity of technology has improved. With Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout, a rotor-wing UAV, “we could increase the payload from 250 pounds (112.5kg) to 600 pounds just by adding a fourth rotor blade", he says.

Gross calls the growth of the UAV market over the last five years “exponential", and like other firms, he admits that Northrop Grumman’s marketing efforts in India accelerated after 26/11. The option to take personnel out of danger is, he says, attractive, but it is only a secondary driving force. The primary appeal of UAVs is their sheer efficacy.

The ease of waging such war has invited some criticism. In his book, Singer worries that such devices can give the impression that war is “costless".

Dyer of iRobot, however, doesn’t think an army’s human presence can ever be entirely replaced on the battlefield. “In economic terms, this is just a classic technology-for-labour trade," he says. There are still plenty of tasks robots cannot perform in the near future, “but they can definitely put distances between our soldiers and harm’s way".

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