US Army Wants Robot Medics To Carry Wounded Soldiers Out Of Battle

Unmanned and unafraid

Remote Control Army Robot

Remote Control Army Robot

Stephen Baack, U.S. Army Photo

This is an understatement: Battlefields are unsafe. For troops wounded in combat, they need to get out of battle fast and to medical care. Historically that’s been the role of human medics, who bravely risk enemy fire to save their wounded comrades. That’s profoundly dangerous work, undertaken by humans because we haven’t, historically, had any other options. Earlier this week, Major General Steve Jones, commander of the Army Medical Department Center, said that in the future, we might send robots instead. Jones said:

"We have lost medics throughout the years because they have the courage to go forward and rescue their comrades under fire. With the newer technology, with the robotic vehicles we are using even today to examine and to detonate IEDs [improvised explosive devices], those same vehicles can go forward and retrieve casualties."

The remarks came at a conference sponsored by the Association of the U.S. Army. Jones specifically mentioned the robots currently employed by bomb squads, as well as unmanned vehicles. The Pentagon has expressed interest in unmanned ambulances for years. A recent one is the Black Knight Transformer, an optionally manned craft that can fly like a quadcopter and drive like a truck.

If robots picking up soldiers from the battlefield feels like science fiction, that's because it literally is. Last week, War is Boring editor and longtime defense journalist David Axe's short story "It's Going To Be Okay" about this very thing was published by Motherboard. Here's a relevant excerpt:

We don't send a lot of human beings into the Engagement Zone, but when we do and one of them gets hurt, it's the Bear's job to literally scoop them up and carry them back to the aid station. The human aid station, I mean. Well the medics—yes, we call them that even though "mechanic" or even "wrecker" is probably more accurate—came rolling in towing this beat-up Bear and the Bear was actually slumping. Shoulders rounded. Arms dragging. A defeated kind of gesture. The latest Bears can actually talk, sort of. They've got sensors that read human expressions and simple algorithms that cue a range of pre-recorded phrases played via a speaker embedded in the robot's chest. "It's going to be okay" is the main one. And dammit if this Bear wasn't saying that to itself, over and over at low volume, as though reassuring himself. "It's going to be okay. It's going to be okay."

Evacuating casualties was only one of the roles for robots in battlefield medicine that Jones discussed. Another option is delivering medical supplies to dangerous areas, supporting troops operating behind enemy lines. To some extent we already have this, thanks to the Snowgoose powered glider, but future drones could do more, like deliver specific medicines or even blood. In the battlefields of tomorrow, when troops call for help, the cavalry that comes may be robots.