US Military Swords Online
Last Wednesday, we ran an analysis from the 2008 RoboBusiness Conference in Pittsburgh that included a comment from an Army Program Manager, Kevin Fahey, about the SWORDS armed unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) system. This program, which resulted in the first armed UGVs to be deployed—specifically, three were deployed in Iraq in June 2007—has been the subject of considerable online rumors, after reports surfaced that the program was in trouble. It's a hot topic for tech bloggers and anyone interested in the future of military robots. Which is probably why our story traveled so fast online—and a big reason why we put SWORDS on the cover of Popular Mechanics earlier this year.
It might also explain why our story was taken so blatantly out of context. What began as a straightforward update about the state of the SWORDS system was repurposed and sensationalized as breaking news about the sudden withdrawal of those three armed robots deployed in Iraq—and as several breaking follow-up reports. Qinetiq, the UK-based company that owns SWORDS-maker Foster-Miller, is disturbed about coverage of our piece, particularly because it appears to be fueling the urban legend of a rogue SWORDS suddenly aiming at hapless humans. But it's not Popular Mechanics that is stoking the fire.
Fahey's comments about SWORDS, particularly his quoted statement that "the gun started moving when it was not intended to move" was not pulled from a sit-down interview with Popular Mechanics. PM's requests for interviews to find out why SWORDS has never fired a shot at a hostile target, despite being in Iraq since last summer, have all been denied by Qinetiq and Foster-Miller. Fahey was answering a question following his keynote presentation at the RoboBusiness Conference, which other members of the press attended. When an audience member asked what happened to SWORDS, Fahey's response was vague, and there was no indication of a timeline in his comments. So the unintended movement he mentioned could have occurred before or after the robot's deployment in Iraq. Still, any answer regarding SWORDS is worth noting, which is why we were suddenly glad to be at an otherwise uneventful robotics conference in western Pennsylvania.
The other Fahey comment we quoted—"once you've done something that's really bad, it can take 10 or 20 years to try it again"—appeared to be in the context of why he believes the military has treaded so lightly with armed ground robots. Let's be clear: Fahey was not stating that a SWORDS unit made a blunder that it will take 10 or 20 years to recover from. If anything, Fahey was trying to express the exact opposite: The goal is to avoid an incident that could set military robotics back a decade or more.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
Rather than rehashing the history of the SWORDS program and its apparent difficulties, we treated this story as a minor update to the ongoing saga of armed military ground bots. We said that SWORDS was "yanked, " and that the three robots were "pulled off the battlefield." Without additional clarification, those sentences were picked up by bloggers looking for a more solid update, and the story took on a mutated life all its own.