Armed robots deployed to Iraq

Published 3 August 2007

Three armed robots — called SWORDS — have been deployed to Iraq; Army hopes that safety and control improvements will make the robots an effective urban fighting tool

We wrote last week that the day of armed robots on city streets was getting near, but it has already arrived on the street of Iraq cities. This is the first time robots carrying weapons have been used a in war zone. It took years of development, but now three “special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system” (or SWORDS) robots have deployed to Iraq, armed with M249 machine guns, and are in use on the ground. The robots “haven’t fired their weapons yet,” Michael Zecca, the SWORDS program manager, says. “But that’ll be happening soon.”

The SWORDS — modified versions of bomb-disposal robots already in wide use in Iraq — were first declared ready for duty back in 2004. There were concerns about safety, however, so more development was needed before the robots could be sent to the battlefield. One of the problems with the robots was that weak signals would keep them from getting orders for as much as eight seconds — a significant time lag during combat. Now, the SWORDS will not act on a command unless it is received right away. A three-part arming process — with both physical and electronic safeties — is required before firing. As importantly, the machines now come with kill, or self-destruct, switches in case they exhibit odd behavior. “So now we can kill the unit if it goes crazy,” Zecca says.

Only three of the robots are currently in Iraq. Zecca says he’s ready to send more, “but we don’t have the money. It’s not a priority for the Army, yet.” He believes this will change once the robots begin getting into firefights.

Law enforcement and first reponse units are keenly watching the SWORDS performance in Iraq.