From Robocop to Terminator to Saturn 3, robots have had some bad press in sci-fi movies—particularly when given guns and assigned military roles. But that's all fiction. Here are two early prototypes of military bots that are really scary.
The first is a new version of Boston Dynamics astonishing, if incredibly loud, Big Dog robot. The original big beast is designed to be a semi-autonomous pack-horse to assist the soldier in the field—it can trot across almost any terrain, tackling the difficult surface conditions automatically. It even resists being kicked off-course.
The miniature version, dubbed Little Dog, is still an early prototype but is already capable of autonomously working out how to navigate obstacles and incorporating some artificial intelligence to enable it to proceed to its destination. When the design is finalized, it will be a lot more clever, and a lot more useful. Think of its potential for navigating its way into cramped and dangerous spaces after a natural disaster to look for survivors.
But it's also got innumerable military or covert police uses, including as an incredibly useful spying device—assuming it's quiet enough. And anyone who remembers the Tom Selleck movie classic Runaway will no doubt think of its uses as a weapon—check out the spider bot in this clip.
Remote-controlled cybernetically tweaked animals have been a recurring idea in sci-fi novels. The military has tried to use animals for years as battlefield tools—though they weren't remote controlled. Everyone remembers the story of the mine-laying trained dolphins. But check out this creepy video:
These are remote-controlled cyborg beetles, created at UC Berkeley as part of a larger program funded by (you've guessed it) the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. This is work that, for the first time, has allowed at-a-distance control of a beetle in flight. Electrodes are implanted into each creature's brain and muscles, and the creature carries a small radio receiver, electronics, and a battery pack on its back. Researchers can send appropriate signals to the beetle over the air waves: They can make it take off and fly, steer it left and right, and make it land—that's about the same degree of control we have over those cheap indoor helicopter toys that were a fad last year. In one test, a cyber beetle flew for more than 30 minutes under remote-control.
When perfected, these cyborg insects will be of incredible use in disaster situations—they can tackle environments that humans find very challenging, and can enter spaces through very small holes. They would need the control electronics to be minimized, and would have to carry a camera or IR sensor and a transmitter to send images back to the controller. Of course, that's a perfectly innocent use—these machines naturally go covert, quite literally as the ultimate bugs.