You Promised Me A Robot

I had a chance to cover a demonstration last week involving the military and unmanned autonomous vehicles (a.k.a. robots) for my internship.

The robots were designed to fly out, locate wounded soldiers on a battlefield, and relay the soldier’s vitals like heart rate and blood pressure back to doctors and medics at a base.

Since this was a simulation, the wounded soldier was a plastic dummy in fatigues and the battlefield consisted of a lonely hilltop surrounded by oak trees in central California.

I was not the only media person there, but I was the only person from a newspaper. There was a woman from a local television station hoping to get some shots of robot airplanes flying overhead…maybe even crashing and burning on the hillside next to the wounded dummy.

But alas, what we got was so completely different.

Our day started out promising, with a briefing about what the scientists envisioned this system of robots could do.

Then we drove out to the test site to watch everything in action. When the scientists cued everyone over the radio that we were ready to begin, we started scanning the sky for an incoming robot.

But instead of an unmanned helicopter thumping its blades in a holding pattern above the “casualty,” a special forces medic drove up on an all-terrain vehicle.


He got off and started walking towards the dummy with what was essentially a homing device. It started beeping more insistently the closer he got to the dummy until he was standing right over it.

The scientists and military guys acted like this was all part of the plan and moved on with the next phase of the test. While they were busy trying to connect with the medics back at the command center, the media people were left scratching our heads.

Where was the robot? Why were these scientists trying to develop an elaborate robotics system designed to locate and treat wounded soldiers on a battlefield when there was already a medic standing over the “casualty?”

We were promised a robot, and instead we got Steve/Bob (the scientists started calling the medic a different name during the course of the demonstration) on an ATV?

After many many questions, we finally learned that the unmanned helicopter they wanted to use had crashed the day before. Steve/Bob was supposed to be a stand-in for the robot.

Aaahhhh…the light of understanding is a beautiful thing.

But while I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to see a robot helicopter, the lady from the t.v. station was not happy. It looked like her editors were giving her an earful over the phone when she called in with this development.

It made me glad I was in print media as opposed to television. Reading about something not working could be a lot more interesting than watching nothing happen.

All in all, I had fun. Even though I didn’t get to watch a robot helicopter, I got an interesting story to tell my friends. I think the public relations guy felt bad about the morning, so they let me ride in a Humvee for a little while, which was also a lot of fun.


About janejaelee

Jane Lee is a graduate student in the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program.
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2 Responses to You Promised Me A Robot

  1. sly says:

    It’s still a great story, even without the robot!

    That picture is pretty fantastic, too! (I resisted the pull of the A-word there, Keith!)

    • Jane Lee says:

      Thanks! There were a lot of hilarious, and somewhat humiliating, ways to go with the picture. But when I saw that little guy, he exuded disappointment. Exactly how I felt when I learned there were to be no robots….

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