WASHINGTON—One look at the unblinking electronic eye and dark contours of the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System and it's hard not think of Skynet, the fictional computer in the Terminator film that becomes aware of its own existence and sends robotic armies to exterminate humans.
Military robots are a deadly serious business, and the gadgetry on display at the Unmanned Systems North America exhibition here underscores the shift by defense companies to selling combat by remote control. The Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consulting firm, forecasts that worldwide spending on unmanned aerial vehicles will grow to around $11.3 billion by the end of the decade from current spending of around $5.9 billion a year.
Christopher Langford, product manager for QinetiQ's unmanned systems group, called the robot an "escalation of force" tool that has been delivered to U.S. special-operations forces. It can stand sentry at a checkpoint, and warn people away with a police-style hailer, a non-blinding laser, tear gas or smoke grenades. As a last resort, it can fire lethal rounds.
Unmanned systems are already widely employed as weapons of war. Armed Predator drones strike insurgent hideouts in Pakistan and Yemen. Over Japan, pilotless military surveillance planes recently inspected the damage from a nuclear disaster.
Of course, the spending on robots is still a fraction of the $220 billion global aerospace market, dominated by the military and commercial sales of giants such as Boeing Co. and European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co.
But robotic weapons aren't without flaws. In Pakistan, the deaths of innocent civilians in U.S. drone strikes have stoked public outrage. P.W. Singer, a fellow at Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank and author of "Wired for War," a book on the revolution in military robotics, has worried that automated warfare, and the killing of enemies at the press of a button, may have the effect of making it more tempting to start wars.
Over the past decade, the Pentagon has poured billions of dollars into developing and fielding pilotless surveillance planes and other robotics. The swarm of new robot weapons on display here showed the defense industry's belief that militaries worldwide will be shopping for years to come.
At an indoor aerial demonstration area—surrounded by netting like a batting cage—vendors demonstrated smaller drones in flight. Defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. showcased the Samarai, a handheld, half-pound drone that stays aloft by spinning like the seed pod of a maple tree. While the aircraft floated around the test area, it streamed live video from its onboard camera.
The industry has had initial success selling pilotless aircraft for surveillance and missile attacks. Now, developers say demand for systems that work on land, like QinetiQ's robot, or underwater, are the next frontiers. "Ground and maritime systems are becoming more popular now," said Gretchen West, the association's executive vice president.
"I give [trade association] AUVSI points for evolving beyond what was almost exclusively unmanned air [systems] to start embracing both ground and underwater," said Joe Dyer, the chief operating officer for iRobot Corp., a major supplier of bomb-disposal robots.
The former Navy admiral said military researchers are starting to see the potential of unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, to hunt for mines or other threats, much as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accelerated the demand for bomb-disposal robots to search for suspected roadside bombs.
A convention in Washington, D.C., showcasing the latest in robotic technology is featuring a Chinese company for the first time. AEE's F50 drone shoots video in high-definition and can hover in the air for 30 minutes. WSJ's Nathan Hodge reports.
In the future, Mr. Dyer said, "a ship that pulls up on some bad guy's coast...before it goes in, it will have launched unmanned underwater vehicles to deal with the submarine threat. It will send UUVs into the surf, to deploy unmanned ground vehicles, and it'll be launching unmanned air vehicles. So you're going to have a full 360-degree view of the battlefield."
This year's robotics show featured a glass shark tank, where attendees watched swimming robots, such as the Seaglider, an underwater vehicle made by iRobot that was used last year to monitor the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Elsewhere, ground robots navigated a small obstacle course that looked like a skateboard park.
U.K. manufacturer Cobham PLC also showed off its TeleMAX explosive-ordnance disposal robot, which climbed up a ramp to open a briefcase meant to simulate a suspicious package.
With the introduction of new systems, such as driverless vehicles, the potential for non-military applications may also grow. Oshkosh Defense, a unit of Oshkosh Corp., is developing an autonomous vehicle that can tag along with a military supply convoy. Marine Corps Capt. Warren Watts, who is helping test the feasibility of the concept, said robotic trucks could cut down on casualties from roadside bombs.
"If you remove the Marine from the cab of the vehicle, it limits how many Marines are actually injured," he said. Perfecting many of these technologies, however, means that robotic vehicles will have to work more autonomously, without someone sitting at a control panel or manipulating a joystick.
Wes Bush, CEO of Northrop Grumman Corp., said the push for greater autonomy—creating machines that are more self-guiding—would enable a new generation of unmanned vehicles that can do complex things like refuel in mid-air or even land on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
"We see these as largely problems of computing power and systems engineering, not fundamental technology development issues," he said. "And we believe they'll be solved, and be solved in fairly short order."