In wartime, one of the most perilous assignments is to walk the point--taking the lead on patrol. The enemy can shoot a point-man dead without warning.
Soon, the soldier walking point could be a robot.
"These little robots are kind of like kamikaze warriors," said George Osgood, founder of RoboTrix, a company that has developed two robot prototypes for the U.S. military--nicknamed "Gladiator" and "Spike."
About the size of washing machines, Spike and Gladiator are armored engines guided by computers. The robots can travel unmanned into the most dangerous situation.
Osgood's tough little robots are being developed to replace human soldiers.
"We're looking at transforming the entire organizational structure of the Army's fighting force," said Curt Adams, a vehicle researcher at the Army's Tank, Automotive and Armaments Command in Detroit.
The transformation is already underway.
In 1999, the U.S. military sent unmanned aerial vehicles called drones on scouting missions over Kosovo.
Robots have also been pressed into service by some police departments.
Northrop Grumman, one of the chief developers of robotic systems, has built about 1,500 robots to handle dangerous situations like bomb disposals, SWAT missions, gas leaks and collapsing mines, said Shawn Farrow of Northrop's Remotec division in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
The Navy is testing unmanned mini-submarines at its Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego. It is also developing unmanned hover craft that resemble fictional 1950s-vintage flying saucers. The flying craft gather intelligence while hovering quietly.
"We can save lives with this," said Virginia Young, chief of the concept lab in Alabama's Aviation Missile Research Development and Engineering Center. Young, a pioneer in robotics since the early 1980s, says research began to accelerate when the Joint Robotics Program at the Department of Defense was created in 1989.
The military sought agile and inexpensive robots or drones that can be easily manufactured or repaired.
"We want to save lives and save money," said Mike Tuscano, coordinator of the Joint Robotics Program. "If you can do both, so much the better."
The smarter computers get, the more the military and police will rely on robots to handle jobs that Tuscano and his fellow Pentagon researchers call the "three Ds"--dirty, dangerous or dull.
"For example, rather than having 18- or 19-year-olds guarding weapons igloos and shooting at sagebrush to kill time, we can let the machines do the 'three Ds,' " Tuscano said.
Likely assignments for robots include surveillance, clearing land mines, responding to chemical weapons releases, exchanging messages during hostage negotiations and--a kamikaze role--guiding weapons to target.
Armies will still need human soldiers, but many may fight from afar, using robot surrogates on the front lines.
Robot functions are still limited by shortcomings in artificial intelligence. For now, systems run by remote control within sight of the operator, or are guided by the operator using the machine's on-board sensors.
Truly autonomous robots that think for themselves are at least a decade away, Young said.
Some systems develop faster than others. Airborne robot drones are simple to build and program because they don't have to navigate obstructions, Young said. Effective land-based robots require more sophisticated technology.
The military looks forward to disposable robots that can handle a wide range of jobs, said John Koehler, of Northrop's land combat systems in Chicago.
"You can have robots carry fuel, water, ammo, tag along with a host vehicle, support radar systems or weapons systems, cut concertina wire, clear minefields, even tow other robot parts or smaller robots," Koehler said. "There are countless missions you could serve."
"And if you lose some, you can send in plenty more to replace them," he said.