Video: Nuclear test site patrolled by eerie rolling robot guards

Humvee-like driverless trucks keep desert wanderers from traipsing into radioactive territory.
Written by John Herrman, Contributor on

You're lost. Really lost. You crest one last outcropping, drop to the ground, look up and see this: A squat, driverless, military-looking vehicle with a towering pillar of equipment mounted on top, rolling toward you at 20 miles per hour. What do you do?

One course of action would probably be to turn around: You've just stumbled upon the Nevada National Security Site, a vast nuclear wasteland that's home to massive amounts of radioactive waste, that used to be a testing ground for nuclear detonations, and which is currently utilized for nuclear emissions testing. It's no place for a hike.

On the other hand, maybe you shouldn't turn around. You're about to be identified by one of a fleet of Mobile Detection Assessment Response Systems (MDARS), three of which have been deployed to monitor far-flung areas of the facility. You don't need to worry about a reenacting of the first scene from Robocop--these drones almost certainly aren't armed, though they can be--but you will soon need to worry about actual human guards, who have just been notified of your presence by an onboard camera.

In one form or another, MDARS have been in active development for nearly 20 years, during which development has forked in two different directions. The first, seen above and called the MDARS-Exterior, is focused on large-scale security patrols. The other, called MDARS-Interior, is an indoors inventory-keeping and surveillance tool.

The outdoors MDARS used here bear an external resemblance to the models that came before, but are home to an extremely modern communications system. From official NNSA materials:

The small autonomous robot, which is remotely operated from a command center at NNSS, is designed to perform random patrols. Onboard sensors and real-time video allow the operator to see intruders or suspect activity as soon as the robot encounters it. The MDARS unit operates independently and only requires direct operator action to assess situations when encountered


The robots can keep track of inventory, as well as gates, locks and other barriers, by using radio frequency identification tags.

As they exist now, the MDARS vehicles are supplementary devices; that is, they assist humans in carrying out a specific job, but rely on us for control and direct instruction. They simply serve to alert of, rather than deal directly with, most problems. In fact, the point of the NNSA's new fleet of MDARS isn't so much to bulk up security as it is to save money. "Use of the robot will result in an estimated cost avoidance of $6 million in infrastructure investments," the facility said in a press release, adding that the robots will result in "an annual cost avoidance of $1 million in protective force expenditures and equipment maintenance."

Beyond offering a relatively cheap way for the NNSA to secure its sprawling facility, it's easy to imagine uses for robo-guards like this. American borders are already patrolled by airborne drone, and the MDARS seems suited to the vast expanses of desert in Arizona and Texas. They could also be used to give the military a ground-level surveillance presence in overseas theaters where human patrols would be too dangerous.

In any case, we've been made acutely aware that the era of the drone is upon us. What we're less aware of is that the benefits of such tech--low cost, no human risk, and super-human abilities--extend to the ground, too.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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