This summer, Army soldiers will deploy to Afghanistan with air support literally in the palm of their hands: the 1.16-ounce Black Hornet mini-drone. New ground robots are entering service too, next year — not to fight but to haul supplies, at least at first — but field tests have convinced the Army to issue these often-cumbersome mechanical mules to specialists and only loan them to frontline troops as needed. By contrast, soldiers are so consistently and unequivocally enthused about the mini-drones that the Army is buying 9,000 systems — each with two drones — over three years to issue to its smallest and historically most vulnerable units, nine-man infantry squads.
The mini-drone and larger robots are all part of a wider revolution in the long-suffering infantry, a revolution sparked in large measure by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The Marines, Mattis’s old service, have issued upgraded 5.56 mm rifles and are adding a specialized drone operator to every rifle squad. The Army is going much farther, developing new 6.8 mm rifles, high-tech targeting goggles, virtual-reality training, and, of course, robots.
Now, none of these unmanned systems is truly autonomous, so they require a human to run them by remote control, which in turn requires a functioning battlefield network that hasn’t been shut down by enemy jamming. The FLIR Black Hornet has a lot of automated functions and only flies short missions, so you don’t need a soldier babysitting it all the time. Ground robots, however, require much more oversight, because they have to avoid rocks, bogs, tree stumps, and other obstacles that no unmanned air vehicle has to worry about and that artificial-vision software still struggles to spot. The Army is eager to improve the technology so that, instead of one soldier remote-controlling one robot, they can have one soldier overseeing a largely autonomous swarm. But even today’s limited autonomy allows for big changes on the battlefield.