The terror attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, changed the lives of all Americans — few more so than the millions who have participated in the two major wars that followed the attacks. For a few tens of thousands of Americans, the wars even created essentially brand-new careers by massively expanding demand for what were once obscure, niche fields. Drone pilot, ground-robot wrangler, bomb hunter and other military and civilian specialties ... these are the jobs that barely existed on Sept. 10, 2001.
In 2001, the U.S. military possessed just a few ground robots that it used for bomb disposal. A decade later, it has literally thousands, ranging from experimental four-legged Big Dog robo-mules and driverless ATVs to rugged wheeled and tracked recon automatons, in additional to the traditional bomb-bots.
One of the earliest post-9/11 ground robots actually had its "combat" debut at ground zero in New York in the days following al-Qaida's attack. Robot-maker sent in one of its PackBots — basically a lawnmower-size tank with an articulated arm and a couple cameras — to help search for survivors. The smaller Multi-Function Agile Remote-Controlled Robot, or "MARCbot" (pictured) is essentially a remote-controlled toy truck meant for combat.
Brookings Institution analyst Peter Singer, author of Wired for War, recalls one Army unit that strapped mines it its MARCbots and used them as robotic suicide-bombers against enemy ambushers. "Of course, each discovered insurgent meant $5,000 worth of blown-up robot parts, but so far the Army hasn’t billed the soldiers," Singer wrote.
Efforts to form official man-robot combat squads faltered. The Army sent three armed Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, or SWORDS, to Iraq in 2007. The ATV-size, tracked, machine-gun-equipped SWORDS were meant to patrol, with a soldier controlling the 'bot from a safe distance using a handheld terminal. But the Army didn't trust the SWORDS squads to avoid killing the wrong people, and kept them confined to base.
Photo: David Axe/Wired.com