America’s robots make deadly weapons. But there are countermeasures to even the most fearsome bot now in service. To avoid detection by aerial drones, Taliban fighters in Afghanistan have begun traveling in smaller groups. In his excellent book War, Sebastian Junger even describes Afghan fighters covering themselves with blankets on sun-warmed rocks to erase their infrared signatures, confounding the drones’ IR sensors.
But hiding from the Pentagon’s unmanned army could get a lot harder, thanks to new ground robot that can actually hear you breathing, even through a wall. The bot’s originator calls it “enhanced situational awareness.” We call it terrifying. Still, the robot does have potentially serious limitations.
Beginning late last year, California firm TiaLinx began rolling out a suite of hardware designed to detect the most minuscule signs of human presence. The Eagle5-N, which debuted late last year, is a low-power, wide-bandwidth radar mounted on a tripod. “In addition to breath detection, it can monitor a heartbeat and, by extension, the stress level of a person,” National Defense reported. “While the device was designed to detect humans behind walls, it also makes sense for rescue missions or monitoring human trafficking at the border — above and underground.”
Next, using U.S. Army funding, TiaLinx fitted the radar to a small, tracked, radio-controlled robot, the Cougar10-L. The idea, TiaLinx CEO Fred Mohamai said, is “to operate at standoff, hence keeping the operator out of harm’s way.” But the bot itself apparently has to press its radar array against the wall in order to sense through it.
So this month, the company went a step farther, boosting the radar’s power so the robot doesn’t have to be so close to the wall. The resulting Cougar20-H “can also be remotely programmed at multiple way points to scan the desired premise in a multi-story building and provide its layout,” TiaLinx boasted.
Like National Defense pointed out, civilian search-and-rescue teams should find that building-scanning ability really useful for spotting survivors amid earthquake rubble. Border cops could use it for finding smugglers’ tunnels. But it’s not clear how exactly the military might use TiaLinx’s breath-detecting robots in wartime.
Aerial drones have the advantage of speed, altitude and range, allowing them to quickly cover vast swaths of territory. Even with the Cougar20-H’s improved stand-off range, the operators still need to be very close to a suspected hideout in order to listen inside it. While you might not be able to hide from a robot that can hear you breathe, out-running it should be pretty easy.