mini-robot deployed
Gary Emery  /  AP
The Mobile Detection and Response System, or MDARS, launches a mini-robot called Matilda during a demonstration Tuesday at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., earlier this month.
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updated 6/29/2004 8:59:32 PM ET 2004-06-30T00:59:32

The Air Force wants to take away Staff Sgt. Miguel Jimenez's job, and that's just fine by him.

The Miami airman was plucked from his normal security duties at nearby Tyndall Air Force Base to help test whether a robotic vehicle can take the place of humans in guarding air bases and troops.

"If somebody wants to spend the money and send something like that out there instead of my life, I'm all about that," Jimenez said Tuesday of the robots that cost from $200,000 to $500,000.

One robot being tested is a Jeep-size, four-wheeled vehicle that has been equipped with radar, television cameras and an infrared scan to detect people, vehicles and other objects. It carries a breadbox-sized mini-robot that can be launched to search under vehicles, inside buildings and other small places.

Another robot is fashioned from an off-the-shelf, four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle, giving it added versatility because a human also can ride it like a normal ATV. Both vehicles can be remotely operated from laptop computers and can be equipped with remotely fired weapons, like an M-16 rifle or pepper spray.

"What we are hoping is the robots will actually detect the enemy first," said Capt. Adolfo Meana Jr., chief of the concepts division for the Force Protection Battlelab at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

"If you shoot the robot we don't care. We know you're there, you're hostile, and we can keep our forces in reserve to move tactically against the enemy. The robots will save our troops' lives," he said.

The vehicles can be programmed to patrol specific areas and then alert an operator by radio if they find something suspicious. They have loudspeakers and microphones for questioning intruders and the operator can pick from a variety of languages.

A human always is in the loop because the military doesn't want to give machines complete discretion, said Walter Waltz, chief of robotic research for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Tyndall.

Jimenez said he found the laptop controls easy to use.

"If somebody that uses PlayStation or X-Box, that type of thing, it's right up their alley," Jimenez said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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