Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,213th Meeting

President William Saalbach called the 2,213th meeting to order at 8:19 pm December 1, 2006 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. The recording secretary read the minutes of the 2,212th meeting and they were approved.

Mr. Saalbach introduced Stephen P. Welby, Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA). Mr. Welby spoke on Military Robotics – Status and Challenges.


“Robotics,” Mr. Welby said, “is not a future development. It is in the present, playing a greater and greater role in people’s lives.”

DARPA, he said, was started when President Eisenhower wanted an agency that, “would not tell him it couldn’t be done.” It’s purpose, established shortly after Sputnik was launched, was to assure that there would be no technological surprises. It was also to fill the void between fundamental research and near-term, applied research, to accelerate uptake of technology, and to take on the risks that the near and the far term researchers avoid. Next year is DARPA’s 50th anniversary.

DARPA has been looking at tele-operated and autonomous systems for two decades. There is a trend to autonomy in increasingly complex environments. Robotics goes well beyond reducing workload, burden, and danger. It allows us to build systems that transcend limitations of endurance, small size, deadly environments, maneuver, simplicity, expendability, and signatures. It relieves humans of the three D’s, the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks.

There are unmanned air vehicles, unmanned ground vehicles, unmanned surface vehicles, and unmanned underwater vehicles. He showed a picture of the Global Hawk landing in California after it flew back from Middle East. It had the greatest number of flight hours of any aircraft, more than 4800 hours. He showed a graph of unmanned flight hours, going up and accelerating rapidly.

He said the Army uses robots the most. He showed a picture of an ordinance disposal team using a robot to disarm a homemade mine. If the robot is blown up, he said, that represents a young soldier who returns home. He showed pictures of a number of blown-up robots.

The challenges in robotics include technology, autonomy, coordination, communication, architectures, propulsion, persistence, payload integration, and actuators. There are also policy questions, airspace and battlespace integration, treaty issues, and export control. There are the usual administrative problems of acquisition, requirement specification, competition, and cost. Then, there are the human problems, for example, if you fly an unmanned aircraft, are you entitled to combat pay and to medals. These are important questions to the people who are asked to do it.

Unmanned vehicles have greatly increased access to territory. It is easier to fly from one place to another than drive, and when it can be done with a small, unmanned aircraft, the costs and risks of doing so are decreased radically.

He showed a collection of small, oddly shaped, and oddly beautiful vehicles under 35 centimeters in wingspan. One problem they have, the smaller vehicles are, the less time they can operate. He showed an example of an aircraft with a 33 cm wingspan that can operate 30 to 40 minutes. They are currently working with things that weigh less than 275 grams and are evaluating things that would weigh less than 10 grams, comparable to a dragonfly.

The Army has wholeheartedly adopted unmanned systems. Many of the articles the Army sees as part of its future are unmanned. He showed a picture of a 13 inch ducted fan rotorcraft that can be carried in backpack. It can fly up to 40 minutes and it can hover. It’s expected to be very useful for searching for snipers. A person can grab it with the blade still spinning. He showed some videos of these little craft flying around. They have forward and downward looking cameras. The operator on the ground can click on a map and the vehicle heads for the spot.

They are working on larger vehicles also. These include a helicopter with endurance of 32 hours on station and a machine called a Cormorant, which can be launched from a submerged submarine and recovered, refueled, and rearmed by the submarine. It both swims and flies.

He showed some little crawling machines and some machines to assist in surgery, one called a scrub nurse, one a circulating nurse, and one a surgeon’s assistant.

He showed some serpentine things crawling up stairs and mentioned that they are looking at things with exoskeletons for armor. A difficulty in that is to make the exoskeleton flex.

One interesting machine went over a cliff and flipped over. Mr. Welby explained this machine had no up side. As we watched, it lowered, or raised, depending on your point of view, its wheels and resumed its travels.

They are also working on an underwater robot to look for mines on the sea bottom. Next month they will launch a robot into orbit to test its ability to do satellite servicing.

DARPA has for several years challenged all comers to have an autonomous vehicle with only two commands, start and stop, travel from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The last challenge drew 195 entries from 36 states. DARPA visited each team and winnowed them down to 23. These 23 vehicles ran a course across the Mojave Desert. The course went down tunnels, where the machines had to navigate by an inertial navigation system. In 2004, none of the machines made it past eight miles. In 2005, all but two did, and eight of them finished the course. Next they plan to have them try to operate in traffic.

Most current robots mimic human action, Mr. Welby said. A more productive approach is to re-imagine functions and forms newly enabled by robotic operation. The long endurance aircraft is an early example of this.

He invited questions.

In response to one question, he said they do have some interest in high school students’ robot projects. He said two high school teams qualified for the urban challenge.

Asked how these devices are protected, he said they are restricted from sale by law.

Someone asked about a robotic bipedal soldier; how far away might that be? Mr. Welby said it’s hard to make a case for a bipedal robot. He said humans do the bipedal thing really well. He was not enthusiastic about three legged ones, either.

Someone asked about the DARPA budget. “It’s gone up,” he said. “We’ve been very well appreciated for what we do. We are really a venture capital agency.”

He said he did not know how robotics would affect attitudes toward war. It offers new options, he observed.


Mr. Saalbach thanked Mr. Welby and presented a plaque commemorating the event.

Mr. Saalbach announced the slate of office candidates for 2007. He encouraged interested parties to support the Society. He made the parking announcement. He invited everyone to stay for the social hour. Finally, at 9:46 pm, he adjourned the 2,213th meeting.

Attendance: 61
Temperature: 17° C
Weather: Warm, moist, windy, with a foreboding sky

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala
Recording secretary

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