Unmanned machines fight to the death

What happens when science-fiction becomes reality? In what certainly could be a precursor to future battles, the Air Force said this week its unmanned MQ-9 Reaper aircraft destroyed and unmanned, remotely controlled vehicle containing an explosive device in Iraq.

While the event was extraordinary in that it was the first time a Reaper had blown something up since arriving in Iraq in late July, it was also one of the first documented cases of two unmanned vehicles doing battle. The Reaper is a faster, larger, higher-flying version of the highly successful MQ-1 Predator. The Reaper has engaged enemy forces in Afghanistan, the Air Force said.  

According to an Air Force account of this mission, Reaper operators from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron at Joint Base Balad discovered a suspicious vehicle. The Airmen immediately relayed the information to personnel in a local ground unit and after the suspicious vehicle was confirmed to be a Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device or VBIED -- a variant of the No. 1 killer of Americans on the battlefield -- a joint terminal attack controller cleared the Reaper to employ a 500-pound laser-guided weapon against the vehicle, the Air Force said.

Such battles are likely to accelerate in the future.  According to the Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2013 the US said it will spend an estimated $4 billion by 2010 on unmanned systems technology. The total spending is expected to rise above $24 billion. Over 4,000 robots are currently deployed on the ground in Iraq.

Professor Noel Sharkey, from the Royal United Services Institute Department of Computer Science said earlier this year that w are beginning to see the first steps towards an international robot arms race and it may not be long before robots become a standard terrorist weapon to replace the suicide bomber.

Sharkey isn't the only on worried about unmanned machinery doing battle.  The anti-landmine group in London called Landmine Action earlier this year said it wants a ban on any robots capable of killing people. The group says robots can fall under the same category as landmines -- which are outlawed in 150 countries -- and is pressing governments to keep control in the hands of a human operator.  "Our concern is that humans, not sensors, should make targeting decisions. So similarly, we don't want to move towards robots that make decisions about combatants and noncombatants," the group said.

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