Project Avatar: Urban Warfare of the Future

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a cutting edge scientific developmental wing of the U.S. government, recently announced that it has set aside millions of dollars to develop ‘Project Avatar’.  However, this project will not include blue people like in James Cameron’s “Avatar”.  Bi-pedal robots will be used to conduct many of the dangerous tasks performed by infantry soldiers.   Theoretically, a real-life soldier could be used to control the robot from thousands of miles away according to DARPA. 

Here is a link to Daily Tech’s article which can provide as much detail as DARPA is obligated to divulge:

Immediately, this sets in motion a few deep issues about the project, both against and for the project.  My friend and I, both prior military, had an interesting discussion about a few of the issues and how it could affect the battlefield of the future.  After reading my ‘yes’ answers it is no secret whether I am for or against this venture:

Question: Will this make warfare more impersonal?

  • The negative aspect is that it is much easier to pull a trigger out of spite and blame it on the ‘faulty’ engineering, for example.  And in that case, there should be serious delegation throughout the United Nations’ (UN) assembly floor in order to govern any atrocities which may occur.  Keep in mind, if one country develops a technology as vital as ‘Project Avatar’ then others will follow suit in what may become the new arms race of the 21st century.  Even then, there is much doubt whether the UN could police those rogue nations that decide to use these robots for terrorist acts.   
  • The positive aspect of this is that, in fact, warfare WILL become more impersonal for our soldiers, particularly those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or even missing limbs or debilitating results.  I love video games, but even I realize there is no reset button on real-life warfare.  Yet, this is a good start at being able to possibly create a mechanized infantry unit that can endure much more than a flesh and blood human.   

Question: Is this too expensive of a venture as opposed to human soldiers?

  • In the short-term, yes.  Taxpayers are looking at an estimated $7 million dollars to fund the project for just one year…and that is simply to conduct the research.  I am sure people can think of other things $7 million should be used for, depending on their scientific stances (or lack thereof).  Also, as my friend stated, scientists would need an exotic element that could withstand a massive amount of force and impact in order to replicate a T 800 model in Terminator 2.  One of the closest substances we have on Earth is an artificial compound called graphene which is super-thin, lightweight and ten times stronger than diamond.  Ironically, would this spawn ‘Project Avatar’ to partake in a journey through space to find a theoretical unobtanium like the element in Avatar?      
  • In the long term, well, it depends.  The magic number to beat is $400,000 per robot; that is currently the amount of a full-coverage payout for a soldier who died in combat if they elected for full coverage Service members’ & Veterans’ Group Life Insurance, commonly referred to as SGLI.  If the U.S. government were able to manufacture these robots far cheaper than the SGLI payout, then the U.S. government would save millions, if not billions of dollars on annuitized payouts to service members’ surviving families.  Most of all, let’s not forget the cost of losing a robot compared to the heartache and suffering friends and families must endure when a soldier dies. 

Question: If these robots will be very weak in the early models, then what use are they today? 

  • I also only have a counter-argument to this statement.  Who says ‘Project Avatar’ is limited to Earth?  Putting political bias aside, Newt Gingrich called for the U.S. to establish a base on the moon.  Of course, this piqued my interest as I am both a futurist and a nerd addicted to science fiction.   After all, he does make a valid point.  I could easily envision the moon as the next ‘western frontier’ for expansion of the human race.  Of course, no one has claimed the moon.  Argue all you want but we live in a day and age where placing a flag in the ground doesn’t automatically deem that territory as your own.  Returning to the original idea, ‘Project Avatar’ could not only be used to conduct hi-tech warfare for control of the moon (especially the dark side) but it could also be used to enhance mining operations below the moon’s surface.  If deemed successful, those robots could even be used elsewhere throughout the solar system where difficult terrain still hinders wheeled rovers. 

Question: Wouldn’t we be creating a ‘Cyberdine’ corporation chock full of human-killing Terminators?

  • Once again, I don’t have a yes answer for this question.  Keep in mind that robots and computers only do what they are programmed to do.  If a robot were programmed to harm a human then the software engineer should be more at fault than the robot.  Providing a dark example, if you were hit by a drunk driver would you rather seek justice from the car or the driver?  In the case of ‘Project Avatar’, robots are only a medium for reaching the end state of reducing casualties, not the end state itself of a world of Terminators.   But it does make me think: if humans were to become so lazy that we would have robots do all physical AND mental labor for us then do we really deserve to exist as a species?

I could go on and on, as I already have, but the night is young and I have more college work.  Hopefully I set at least a few minds wondering about the possibilities of such a project and the promise it could hold for sci-fi nerds like me.

If you liked this article then I suggest reading one of my earlier works from autumn 2011.  Like James Cameron, I would almost feel honored if DARPA heavily borrowed from my unfinished work called ‘Hired Help’, written almost half a year ago.

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About Manny Garza

After serving 8 years in the U.S. Army as an Intelligence Analyst, Manny departed the military in order to pursue his B.A. in Philosophy from American Military University. Aside from college, he writes short stories and essays in the realm of philosophy and science fiction. Manny's short stories are heavily influenced by who he refers to as The Trinity: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jack Williamson. He is married to his lovely wife, Melissa, and has two dogs named Koopa and Goomba. Aside from being an editor and contributor of Nerd Trek articles, his hobbies include playing guitar, singing, and both tabletop and video game RPGs. Manny currently lives in Charlottesville, VA.