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Show features drones, robots; provides new hints about future of war

By Charley Keyes and Reynolds Wolf, CNN
  • New unmanned aircraft and robots were on display at a Denver exhibition
  • An organizer describes the devices as "extensions of human hands, eyes, ears"
  • Video-game veterans may be best suited for flying and manipulating new machines

Denver, Colorado (CNN) -- It was a glimpse into the future, when convoys rumble toward the battlefield without a driver behind the wheel, aircraft soar without pilots on board and robots glide forward to fight with machine guns and grenade launchers, all the while beaming back video.

Hundreds of displays at the Colorado Convention Center this week in Denver allowed the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) to show off its sharpest designs and latest inventions. Some of these machines already are on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving eye-in-the-sky views of the battlefield, locating hidden roadside bombs or crawling through dangerous terrain. But other machines are brand new, with their designers pitching to investors and military buyers.

"Robotics and unmanned systems save lives and save money," AUVSI president Michael Toscano says as he looks over the exhibit hall. The giant Global Hawk unmanned aircraft sits at the far end of the hall, its 110-foot wingspan dwarfing much smaller planes and robots.

"You can take human beings out of harm's way, whether it is a natural disaster like Katrina, whether it's an incident like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico whether it is a bomb scare that takes place in New York City," Toscano said. "These are extensions of human hands, their eyes and their ears," Toscano said as he surveyed the exhibits.

The military is increasingly on board. "From the standpoint of the Department of Defense, unmanned aircraft systems are here to stay both on the ground and in the air," Says Army Col. Greg Gonzalez, project manager for the Army's unmanned aircraft systems. He spent the day on Monday browsing the exhibits, talking to old contacts and delving into how new inventions might help U.S. forces.

Gonzalez says unmanned aircraft give commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan improved "situational awareness," a new sense of what is happening around them. And whatever happens next for U.S. forces, military brass will want more information, faster, clearer and better integrated.

"We know there will be other threats and we have to figure out how to use those systems against those threats to make our soldiers safer and protect our country's interest," Gonzalez said

Some of the high-tech gizmos look like something a 9-year old child would put on a birthday wish list. Others looks like they would be more at home at a nursery school sandbox. But look more closely and the tiny surveillance choppers and aircraft more likely than not are equipped with GPS, hi-def television cameras, image sensors -- often with the possibility of remotely controlled weapons.

Some of the robots mounted on treads have the dangerous duty right now of finding and destroying IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in Afghanistan. And the MAARS -- that stands for Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System -- is outfitted with a machine gun and even a grenade launcher.

"One of the things we're doing, the MAARS in particular, is that it allows us to sand a robot forward without sending a human forward,with a weapon, keeping him out of harm's way," says Brent Azzarelli, chief robotic engineer for the Navy and the Marine Corps.

And these robots can all be manipulated by increasingly small consoles that can be operated behind the lines. "Almost like a backpack video game, exactly," Azzarelli told CNN. "Weight and ergonomics were very important in our design."

Northrup Grumman vide president Gene Fraser was showing off one of the stars of the show, the unmanned aircraft that is designed to launch off Navy carriers called the X47B Ucast. Its smaller, stealthier design may eventually force the Global Hawk, a high-altitude endurance remotely piloted aircraft, into retirement.

Fraser admits that kids who spent time -- too much time according to many of their parents -- on video games may be the best prepared for flying and manipulating these new machines.

"I know Mom and Dad wouldn't like to hear this, but the type of skills you gain playing video games, having situational awareness and context, just getting data off a display, these are the skills you need to operate an unmanned system of any kind, in any domain, air, space or sea," Fraser said.

DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon think tank that is credited with starting the internet, GPS, and stealth-technology -- was showing off a robot in Denver that can recognize a pattern and then with amazing dexterity pick up and assemble blocks on a table to replicate it. DARPA is inviting anyone to step up and write software for the robot with no definite idea what civilian or battlefield duties it might perform

"Really the sky is the limit," DARPA project manager Robert Mandelbaum says. "We have no predictions where the limits will be and what it can do from a military point of view or the commercial world."

Businessman and defense expert Peter Smith came all the way from Australia to see what unmanned vehicles were on offer. He says the whole industry now is debating whether the future will be won by smaller and smaller unmanned vehicles. Or as he puts it, "do you want to buy a Great Dane or lots of smaller terriers," Smith said. "Let's play with the little toys"

He says the future will belong to the scientists best able to figure out how all the surveillance planes, robots and drones can talk to each other and present a clearer picture of what is happening.