updated 6/22/2006 2:44:02 PM ET 2006-06-22T18:44:02

Robots are playing an important role in U.S. military operations in Iraq, but upgrades are needed before battlefield bots take on greater responsibilities, an Army official says.

Nearly 10,000 robots are currently deployed in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Charles Cartwright, program manager for the U.S. Army's Future Combat Systems, said Tuesday at a conference for robotics industry professionals.

Rather than being autonomous, they are controlled remotely by human soldiers as they perform tasks like disarming roadside bombs, scouting out dangerous territory or patrolling the skies.

Before bots take on a bigger role — such as becoming armed fighting machines — they've got to be able to recognize friend from foe, Cartwright said. Communications, he said, must improve not only among the robots but also among robots and their human counterparts.

"How do you put ground robots and people together in the same environment? How do you know you're there and how can you do it safely?" he said. "How do you tell the robot where to go in real time? How does it tell you where it is?"

One robot that has already proved effective in the field is the PackBot, a 30-pound robot on treads that soldiers can carry into combat and use to explore difficult terrain for improvised explosive devices and other traps, Cartwright said.

Colin Angle, co-founder of PackBot-maker iRobot Corp., said many in the robotics industry focus too heavily on building expensive, complicated machines rather than simpler, practical devices that can help drive down the costs of everything from fighting wars to caring for the elderly.

"NASA and the world only need so many robots where cost is no object," said Angle, whose Roomba vacuum-cleaner robots start at $150. "It is an irrelevant innovation to build a great robot that is too expensive for its target application."

RoboConference 2006 produced some strange company. Among the robots on display was Paro, a cooing baby harp seal droid designed by Japanese researchers to soothe patients in hospitals and nursing homes. Next door was Talon, a sturdy robot with tank-like treads engineered to probe IEDs in Iraq.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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