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Could Segways replace soldiers as hired killers?

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Aided by backing from the U.S. Department of Defense, the Segway Human Transporter may well be the first scooter of mass destruction.

The enchanted minds at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) - an arm of the DoD - have funded the Segway Robotic Mobility Platform (SRMP), which is a modified version of the fabled scooter designed for more military pursuits. At present, researchers scattered throughout U.S. universities are dabbling with the SRMP to see what kinds of tasks a robotic version of the Segway can handle. Armed with various sensors, hardware add-ons, and software packages of their own design, the groups are hoping to prove the Segway could be used to perform scouting operations, recover wounded troops or even one-day do battle.

The idea may not be as far-fetched as it seems. Last month, a renegade Segway owner in San Francisco attacked and wounded a three-year-old girl. The DARPA plan, however, calls for far more precise strikes in rugged terrain and without much human intervention.

The SRPM program is, in some ways, similar to other work being done in the area of robotic vehicles. DARPA has set up an event called the Grand Challenge to be held next year in which robot cars will race across the Mojave Desert. The idea is to have vehicles see and steer on their own using a complex set of sensors and software.

Robot systems are interesting enough in their own right, but in both cases DARPA is heeding to a command sent down by Congress for the U.S. to automate its military force. A Congressional mandate calls for one-third of ground combat vehicles to operate unmanned by 2015. Where the Grand Challenge looks to spur a robot cavalry, the SRMP program is geared more toward creating robot troops.

A number of universities, NASA and the Navy are all helping design SRMP vehicles. The modified Segway allows these groups to develop their own software and sensors for the scooter and then plunk a laptop down in the machine to act as its brain.

The mission at hand is a tough one, as can be seen in this Carnegie Mellon video. The Segway goes to kick a rubber ball only to find itself making love to the pavement a short while later.

Some of the more impressive test runs can be seen in these videos from Georgia Tech and Stanford University. The Stanford team even has their Segbot face off against an all too willing police officer. Real campus crime must be at an all-time low.

DARPA's interest in the scooter could not come at a better time for Segway LLC. During a mandatory recall earlier this year, it was revealed that a paltry 6,000 Segways have been sold. Maybe the ideal role for the scooter is not as a clumsy means of urban transport but instead as a hired killer that can dice through enemy lines at 12.5 m.p.h. A lucrative military contract is sure to do more for Segway's bottom line than a bunch of bloated hobbyists.

The leaning of this country toward robotic fighters conjures up some mixed feelings. It clearly makes sense to keep actual human beings out of the fray where possible and, on some levels, the idea of robot wars is far more appealing than the destructive exercises we engage in today.

Still, one could well assume that the U.S. may end up a few years ahead of rivals in the robot warfare race. (Yes, we see that is the point - no letters, please.) And it would appear all too easy to send a fleet of robot killers into a country of ill-repute. While some of the evildoers would meet their maker, it doesn't seem hard to believe that innocents would get caught up in the mix as well. How is a child to avoid robot soldiers, robot tanks and hopping land mines?

If the robots come for us, we do hope there is a human controlling the beast on the other end. Few things could be more demeaning than to be killed by an over-zealous, autonomous Segway.

For more information on the Segway Soldier head on over here. ®

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