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German army to recruit cyborgs

The ideal soldier of the future knows no fear or fatigue and can even survive explosions with nothing but scratches.

india Updated: May 21, 2006 08:50 IST

The ideal soldier of the future knows no fear or fatigue, coolly picks the optimal way out of mortal danger and can even survive explosions with nothing but scratches: meet the military robot.

The German army took a close look this week at potential robot recruits, inviting inventors to an infantry training ground at Hammelburg, 85 km east of Frankfurt, to demonstrate what land robots can do.

Major-General Wolfgang Korte, head of the army administration, was impressed at the range of capabilities. "I've seen how much they can do," he said at the European Land Robot Trial (ELROB), described as Europe's first competitive display of robots in uniform.

Fire brigades and police were also invited to the event, which was confined mainly to autonomous vehicles on wheels and tracks. Self-guided aircraft and submarines appear at other venues.

Korte is keen to acquire autonomous devices to aid human soldiers, but cannot place procurement orders without government approval.

Lieutenant-Colonel Juergen Amman, overseeing the show, said he hoped the German armed forces could acquire such robots within the next five years, but admitted, "Right now, we are at the very start".

The German Army's robot experience is relatively limited: it uses remote-controlled tracked devices for bomb disposal and remote-controlled drones for filming and other intelligence gathering over battlefields. But the robots shown at Hammelburg go much further.

In the mock town at Hammelburg, used to train infantry in urban warfare, some of the devices explored buildings without human guidance. Others autonomously hauled ammunition over bumpy ground or toted self-firing guns.

Klaus Schilling, a professor of robotics at nearby Wuerzburg University, says the potential of such autonomous vehicles is still largely undeveloped, even as the devices get smarter year by year.

For the army, ELROB was like the starting line in a race, the first showing on this scale by developers of what is possible.

Some 20 teams from eight European nations, representing both defence suppliers and universities, entered robots for the realistic missions on the trial schedule. They were required to back up human soldiers in the alleyways of the training town and in open country.

Machines on offer ranged from an extremely agile surveillance robot - about the size of a car battery - to a computer-powered car that can compile 3D maps of countryside in real time as it drives along.

Amman said that the army is comfortable with the variety of the robots. "We were not looking for standard robots, but for differing machines for differing missions," he said.

Unlike the DARPA Grand Challenge, a race for autonomous vehicles sponsored by the US Defence Department, no prize money was offered at Hammelburg, and there were no winners or losers.

Entrants could hope for international attention, though, with more than 1,000 guests including venture capitalists and foreign military attaches in attendance. Broadcasters were also keen to see what was going on: nearly 30 television teams were accredited.

Supply orders were not, however, in immediate prospect. "We will be doing a critical evaluation of what we have seen," said Korte. Army officials, however, say there is no budget to buy any yet.