Artificial intelligence has not yet reached a level that allows for a truly autonomous robot, but we have come far in the last 50 years. Robots are in use today, performing duties from vacuuming our floors to building cars, to fighting our wars for us. Only a handful of these machines possess any degree of autonomy, and even fewer of those (thankfully) are armed. The United States military stables the greatest arsenal of armed robots in the world, and has several major companies spearheading the advanced robotics research and development industry, with the singular stated goal of creating a better war machine. Because of this, more funding is moved each year into projects to develop new drones for military use, roboticise existing military hardware, or weaponize commercially available robotics.
With public disapproval of any armed conflict on the rise, the DoD is under heavy pressure to remove the human element from the equation in order to reduce American casualties. Costs involved in the development and deployment of manned aerial weapons systems alone have skyrocketed beyond the allotted budget, largely due to physical restraints of such advanced systems that remain tied to and must facilitate biological constraints. The best example of this phenomenon would be the costly development of the F-22 Raptor. Years of delays along with constant budgetary overruns plagued the project to the point that it nearly failed. The end result is a plane that costs $361 million, whereas an unmanned drone could be purchased for a fraction of that cost, and no pilot would require costly flight-time.
These 12 machines were purpose-built to kill and destroy while saving American lives in the process. It may be an ugly idea, but it works.
MQ-9 Reaper (aka Predator B)
Beginning life as a simple Predator unmanned attack-drone, the MQ-9 Reaper has taken its place in an ever-growing fleet of "hunter-killer" robotic aircraft currently in use. The Reaper's greatest upgrade from the Predator baseline series is in its turboprop engine, with nearly nine times the horsepower of the original piston-driven power-plant. That equates in the field to being able to carry 15 times the load of ordinance, as well as being able to move three times faster than the now sluggish Predators. It's capable of deploying laser-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles against ground targets, with deadly precision. Technically it's also capable and tested to use air-to-air missiles against aerial targets, but that real-life scenario hasn't come up yet. Able to carry a maximum payload of 3,000 lbs to a considerable ceiling of 52,000 ft., it can remain aloft for 36 hours. The Reaper is fully capable of autonomous operation.
Predator C "Avenger"
The General Atomics Avenger is not a bad super hero out of the 80's, but a super-sized, heavily upgraded member of the Predator family of armed UAV's. This one's more commonly known as the Predator C, making it the last installment of the series. It's nearing the end of its developmental stage and aside from its namesake has little in common with its predecessors, and is actually similar in some ways to the new Air Force's new F-22 Raptor. It's built to utilize the same weaponry as the Reaper, but has a far different method to its mayhem; the Avenger uses a stealth-designed jet engine. With an operational ceiling of 60,000 ft., it can hang with the likes of U-2 spy planes. Flying at 400 knots for 20 hours, it can haul 3,000 lbs of munitions to lay on target. The Avenger is capable of autonomous operations.
Boeing decided to take lessons learned and technologies honed in their Bird of Prey project and apply them to a completely new "technology demonstrator" aircraft that they hope could make them a hefty amount of money, while also terrifying anyone with an imagination. They created the X-45 UCAV, or Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle. Like horrors from a science fiction film, these things are meant to travel in packs, autonomously, and engage targets with lethal speed, maneuverability, and armament. They communicate with each other and with near instantaneous speed determine how best to deal with a target in any given situation, then handle it. While one is attacking, another covers it. The craft can accomplish mid-air refueling autonomously. In May of 2009 a secret project inside Boeing was unwrapped to reveal an even deadlier version of the X-45c, the largest most advanced version of the X-45 airframe, dubbed the Phantom Ray. It'll be flying by 2010. That airframe was expected to rate 0.85 Mach with a ceiling of 40,000 ft. and 4,500 lb munitions payload, so we can expect even more out of the Phantom Ray.
Northrup Grumman didn't want to feel left out in the X series aerial death race, and neither did the US Navy. Enter the Pegasus, cousin to the X-45 series airframes, but meant for a different environment. The Pegasus is ideally meant to stock carriers with swarms of autonomous operations capable fighter drones. Its impressive 62 ft. wingspan get's chopped to a fraction for storage in between flights with folding wings. It cruises at .45 Mach and is capable of speeds at the X-45 level, but that's not as important as the fact that it will be taking off and landing on carrier decks on its own, and able to refuel mid-flight over the ocean if needed. This capability will allow for a carrier to be in an entirely different ocean than the target these drones go after with their payloads of smart-bombs.
The US Marine Corps' newest recruit looks like it rolled straight out of a movie. Bristling with weapons and sensors, the Gladiator Tactical Unmanned Ground Vehicle is built to go wherever there are boots on the ground replace them with wheels when it's too dangerous. The unit is capable of scouting, surveilling, or assaulting targets, as well as providing cover as well as ammunition and supplies for nearby marines. A key function is to carry out the mission in the event of a nuclear, biological, or chemical (NBC) attack. Basically, it's smaller than the original Mini Cooper, and carries enough mortar tubes to level a building a quarter-mile away while simultaneously laying down ground fire with a mounted machine-gun.
The Black Knight is currently in development and testing stages, with plans to replace its non-roboticized base-model, the venerable Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The Bradley's fighting prowess was well proved in Iraq on several occasions, as well as other hotspots around the globe, and now there is a robotic version of it. A tank-sized robot capable of autonomous navigation and rudimentary targeting of its 25 mm chain-gun is not something anyone would want to confront, ever. That's exactly what this beast is, and with the capacity to mount pods of TOW (anti-tank) and Stinger (anti-aircraft) missiles, this vehicle is as survivable as it is lethal.
MQ-8 Fire Scout
Fire Scout is technically classified as a VTUAV, or Vertical Takeoff UAV. In this case, that simply relates to it being a dwarf-sized autonomous helicopter. The US Navy has been seeking a robotic solution to its inherent problem of being somewhat limited on deck-space, while constantly needing aerial support craft. The Fire Scout was perfect for this role and with minor modifications became the Sea Scout for naval use while retaining the Fire nomenclature for Army use. This tiny aircraft is able to carry serious firepower, including Hellfire missiles as well as a host of laser-guided armaments. Alternate versions have been tested using .338 caliber rifle systems, ideal for precision kills of human targets.
Soon to be taking over the seas as production is ramped up in the coming years, the Protector Unmanned Surface Vehicle (USV) brings vengeful robotic terror to the last remaining realm of the battlefield. Originally built as a direct response to the USS Cole bombing, these waterborne armed drones are able the world's one and only oceanic combat drone. While operated by remote now, plans are underway to provide autonomous operation capabilities as well, with an ultimate goal of not only securing ports against terrorism attempts but also tireless patrols around carrier groups. The Protector is aptly named, as it's able to be armed with either a 40 mm grenade launcher, or a choice between .50 caliber or 7.62 mm machine guns. Armed like that, with a top speed of up to 40 knots, this USV is absolutely deadly in any waters.
The Foster-Miller TALON may not have autonomy as a feature, but this tiny remote controlled robot is LETHAL. Able to maintain its command and control link from up to 1000 meters away from its operator, the TALON allows a huge extension of influence over an area by a force that would normally be too small to cover such real estate. The SWORDS refers to Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, which is pretty obviously an acronym that was reverse engineered, but who could blame the designers? The unit has been tested using several small arms weapons normally carried by soldiers into combat, including the M-16 and the Barrett .50 caliber rifle, but currently the units in service carry the M249 machine gun. This robot only comes up to knee height, and weighs a mere 100 lbs, but make no mistake, it can kill you.
Probably the exact opposite of the miniature TALON robots, Carnegie Melon's Crusher is a behemoth capable of literally mowing down an entire squad of enemy soldiers, effectively neutralizing them without firing a shot. It is a six-wheeled monster, engineered specifically with terrain-navigation in mind. It's able to climb over 4 ft. steps or barricades, using a suspension system not seen on any other vehicle. It's a true multi-purpose vehicle, but after further testing, it's expected to be able to autonomously patrol with weaponry, navigating terrain other UGV's would be unable to handle.
Project REDCAR is hilarious looking, considering the fact that on first inspection it's quite clear that this "drone" is nothing more than an ORV with a weapon strapped to the front and mounted electronics. That doesn't detract from the fact that it is fully capable of not only detecting your unauthorized presence in its patrol range, hunting you down, challenging you and finally opening fire on you with said weapon, which would be a machine gun. REDCAR stands for Remote Detection, Challenge and Response, which is an important force-protection mission. The purpose of the drones is to secure base perimeters and other high-value stationary assets (like shipping warehouses) from unauthorized intrusions. The ORV was selected as a platform for its rugged chassis and configurability, allowing the unit to traverse terrain too thick for larger UGV's to handle.
A slightly more mature version of the REDCAR system, the MDARS or Mobile Detection Assessment and Response System was meant for terrain more easily travelled. They're meant to be deployed in a grid of up to 255 units, with the goal of ensuring redundant security for an area covered. Ideally deployed to a semi-urbanized setting, such as an airfield, as it travels best on pavement. Behaving much like an ED-209 from Robocop, the MDARS unit will train its guns on the target, then order him not to move. In the meantime, security forces would be dispatched to the exact location with full knowledge of what was waiting for them there.