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Soldiers may have armed robots as battle buddies by early next year, according to industry and military officials attending the biennial Army Science Conference.

The Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, or SWORDS, will be joining Stryker Brigade Soldiers in Iraq when it finishes final testing, said Staff Sgt. Santiago Tordillos, a bomb disposal test and evaluation NCOIC with the EOD Technology Directorate of the Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.

"We're hoping to have them there by early 2005," Tordillos said. "The Soldiers I've talked to want them yesterday."

The system consists of a weapons platform mounted on a Talon robot, a product of the engineering and technology development firm Foster-Miller. The Talon began helping with military operations in Bosnia in 2000, deployed to Afghanistan in early 2002 and has been in Iraq since the war started, assisting with improvised explosive device detection and removal. Talon robots have been used in about 20,000 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Foster-Miller reports.

"It's not a new invention, its just bringing together existing systems," said Tordillos, who has been involved with the project since its inception about a year and a half ago.

Different weapons can be interchanged on the system - the M16, the 240, 249 or 50-caliber machine guns, or the M202 -A1 with a 6mm rocket launcher. Soldiers operate the SWORDS by remote control, from up to 1,000 meters away. In testing, it's hit bulls eyes from as far as 2,000 meters away, Tordillos said. The only margin of error has been in sighting, he added.

"It can engage while on the move, but it's not as accurate," Tordillos said.

The system runs off AC power, lithium batteries or Singars rechargeable batteries. The control box weighs about 30 pounds, with two joysticks that control the robot platform and the weapon and a daylight viewable screen.

SWORDS recently was named one of the most amazing inventions of 2004 by Time Magazine.

There are four SWORDS in existence; 18 have been requested for service in Iraq, Tordillos said. So far, each system has cost about $230,000 to produce, said Bob Quinn, lead integrator for the project. When they go into production, Quinn estimates the cost per unit will drop to the range of $150,000 to $180,000.

Quinn credits Soldiers with getting the project started.

"It's a classic boot-strap effort," said Quinn.

Tordillos fielded a variety of questions while showing off the system in the exhibit hall. Soldiers wanted to know what military occupational speciality (MOS) they have to sign up for in order to work with the system. There is no specific MOS for it, he said.

Other questions were more thought provoking. Does he envision a day when armed robots outnumber humans on the battlefield? Tordillos firmly said no.

"You'll never eliminate the Soldier on the ground," he said. "There'll be a mix, but there will always be Soldiers out there."

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