Some Are as Adorable as WALL-E, and Injured Ones Now Go to Bot Rehab
In the Afghan War, a Little Robot Can Be a Soldier's Best Friend

BAGRAM, Afghanistan—The 310 SUGV is a distant cousin of the Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner currently being promoted as a Father's Day gift. In Afghanistan, the Marines call him the Devil Pup.

And when a Devil Pup gets sick, Marines can send the little bot to the Joint Robotics Repair Detachment—Afghanistan, where a team of military and civilian technicians practice the healing arts on robots.

Army Spec. Steven Grado recently tended to a Devil Pup, shipped from the front lines to the repair facility in a travel case. He installed a battery, switched the robot on and, like a yoga instructor, put the little guy through a series of poses. He scribbled notes, listing the symptoms.

Made by iRobot Corp., the Devil Pup looks like a sibling of Disney's fictional WALL-E movie character. It scoots around on tank-like treads, equipped with a manipulator arm and high-resolution cameras. It can wade through 6 inches of water, clamber over an obstacle or walk point in front of a patrol. This robot—"really strong for its size," according to Spec. Grado—was easy to diagnose. The robotic hand it uses to probe roadside bombs wouldn't fully close.

That, in turn, required physical therapy. Spec. Grado turned a calibration switch on, manipulated the arm until the full range of motion was restored, then rebooted it. "Sometimes they take a couple tries," says Spec. Grado. "That's just how computers go."

Robots used to be the war's disposable heroes: If one got in trouble, the device could simply be junked. But now, in a time of fiscal constraints, these machines are getting the loving care they deserve.

The detachment, housed at Bagram Airfield, the sprawling military installation north of Kabul, has surgery bays and diagnostic tools to give the military's robot companions a second chance. Lt. Col. Douglas King, commander of the detachment, says the focus now is on developing robots that are durable rather than disposable.

The military currently has as many as 3,500 robots in Afghanistan, from small contraptions that a soldier can pitch through a window to bulldozer-size machines that can plow over mine-seeded roads. Instead of dispatching a young soldier to probe for a mine or search a cave, a commander these days often sends in a small robot.

This, in turn, means that the combat troops sometimes develop emotional attachments to their robotic companions. Army Maj. Christopher Orlowski, science and technology officer for the robotics detachment at Bagram, said the soldiers and Marines sometimes name their robots—and even give them battlefield "promotions" for successfully spotting mines or explosive devices.

When some damaged robots are brought in, said Maj. Orlowski, who has a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering and wrote a thesis on insectlike drones, some troops insist that they get the same robot back—not a replacement unit.

The robots may have their adorable qualities, but they are engaged in a serious business. Col. King showed the remains of one robot that recently arrived at the depot: an olive-drab box held the blast-shattered remains. What was left—a heap of gears, rubber treads and a frayed wiring harness—were the remains of a PackBot, another model made by iRobot.

Like thousands of robots deployed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, PackBot fulfilled a mission that flesh-and-bones soldiers, risking life and limb, used to do. According to statistics provided The Wall Street Journal by the U.S. military, more than 750 such robots have been lost in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan—a number that translates into many saved lives.

Even parts of a bomb-damaged robot can be salvaged. In the case of the PackBot, technicians recovered the controller, an important piece of hardware that could be paired with another bot.

Rich Ramsey, a civilian technician, said that this was one of the more serious casualties the facility had to treat. "This one took a hit on both sides, and in the center," he explained. "And probably got run over at the same time. So…there isn't a whole lot left."

While the human lives that these robots save are priceless, the robots themselves often are very expensive. The smallest robot that comes in for diagnostic work at the Bagram repair facility costs $9,000. A remote-controlled vehicle used to clear mines can cost a quarter of a million dollars.

The Army has recently ordered new throwable robots such as the ReconRobotics Inc. Recon Scout XT, a dumbbell-shaped robot, and the iRobot FirstLook, a small robot designed to survive a 15-foot drop. Many of these robots will require some attention during their tour.

Once cured, robots here get a little fresh-air therapy. After finishing repairs, the technicians put the robots through their paces out on Disney Drive, Bagram's main drag, drawing stares from soldiers on the base. The street was named in honor of Army Spec. Jason Disney, killed in 2002 when clearing scrap metal at Bagram.

Inside the robot hospital one day recently, technician Thomas Vialpando was tinkering with the innards of a Honeywell International Inc. T-Hawk, a hovering robot used by ordnance-disposal teams.

The T-Hawk, which resembles a quarter keg of beer or a hibachi, has a swiveling robotic eye mounted on a gimbal so it can hover and stare at a target. The robot's ducted-fan design can be temperamental in the dust and high altitudes of Afghanistan—and Mr. Vialpando was swapping out the robot's two-stroke engine so it could stay aloft.

The robot doctors at Bagram recently took in a Talon robot, a larger, brawnier cousin to the Devil Pup made by U.K.'s QinetiQ Group PLC. The Talon had a strange malady: It spun in circles as if possessed.
No exorcism was required. The robot doctors simply installed a new OCU—operator control unit—and the Talon was back in working order.

For soldiers who work at the facility, the job has its tangible rewards. "That's my biggest mission: to make sure the robots are 100% healthy before they go out the door," says Spec. Grado.

If a robot is sacrificed in the line of duty, he adds, "that's fine, as long as everybody comes home."
I don't know why but this article made me tear up a bit. Its like the robots are also soldiers. And they have saved soo many lives! It says that about 750 of them have been killed/damaged...that could have easily been 750 of our soldiers instead of the robots.