THE NEW YORKER
February 23, 2009
An Appalachian gunsmith’s robot army.
BY EVAN RATLIFF
At the age of seventy-four, Jerry Baber has winnowed his primary interests in life to four subjects: shotguns, robots, women, and cars. When Baber is holding forth—his default mode of communication being the filibuster—his conversation tends to fall somewhere among these categories. Often his passions intersect, as in the question of whether or not a Corvette is an ideal car for picking up women. (It is.) Similarly, Baber might be discussing his love of robots and shotguns, and whether, by combining the two, he is helping to shape the future of warfare from his garage. (He is.)
Baber, an engineer by training, is an expert in investment casting—a method for making small pieces of finely shaped metal. He lives down the road from the Bristol Motor Speedway, in Piney Flats, Tennessee, a hilly town dotted with cattle farms, just south of the Virginia border. There he operates a small foundry, where he manufactures gun parts. Over the years, he has contributed triggers, barrels, hammers, and other components for half a million firearms. “I probably know as much, or more, as any one single person about manufacturing guns,” he told me one afternoon, while driving through the Appalachian foothills in his cherry-red Chevy Impala. (“The best buy on the road today, barring none.”)
Until recently, Babel’s reputation as a firearms craftsman was known only to a few dozen gun-trade insiders. Then, a few years ago, he started producing, from start to finish, his own weapon: a fully automatic shotgun called the AA-12. The AA-12 has the power of a twelve-gauge shotgun but none of its bruising recoil. Recoil is a problem with any shotgun; a typical single-shot twelve-gauge will, as Baber puts it, “just rattle your damn teeth when it goes off.” A gun’s kick occurs when gas from ignited gunpowder propels the shell out of a gun barrel, creating an equal and opposite force that pushes the gun’s firing bolt backward. That force eventually gets transferred to the shooter’s shoulder, and the pop of the recoil also sends the barrel upward. Trying to fire an automatic version of a twelve-gauge shotgun would be like holding a fire hose with one hand.
By contrast, you can fire an AA-12—which shoots five shotgun shells per second—with one and hold a mug of coffee in the other without spilling it. Made almost entirely of aircraft-grade stainless steel, the gun can fire thousands of rounds without cleaning. Baber spent a dozen years, and upward of a million and a half dollars of his own money, perfecting the gun. He believes that the AA-12 is the most deadly close-range weapon ever created.
Not long ago, Baber decided that his gun was so reliable and accurate that it could be mounted with confidence on unmanned vehicles. Armed robots, he believes, could offer crucial assistance in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; they could be employed on a street monitored by snipers or sent into a building harboring insurgents. Last year, Baber met with engineers at Robotex—a start-up in California that makes ground-based robots—and at Neural Robotics, a company outside Nashville that manufactures unmanned helicopters. Together, they created prototypes of small, remote-controlled armed machines. Baber keeps several in his workshop, and talks about them as if they were pets.
Like most people who travel to Piney Flats to meet Baber, I had first learned about him through online video clips illustrating the destructive potential of his creations. The most popular videos involve Baber and others shooting the AA-12 at targets in Baber’s back yard. In one clip—viewed two million times on YouTube—a dainty, short-haired woman in high heels casually grips the gun and fires off eight hundred balls of 20-calibre metal in four seconds, before turning to smile at the camera. In another, Baber uses a remote control to maneuver a ground robot around a room. The video cuts to a tiny white helicopter, whose cockpit could barely accommodate a toddler, at rest on the grass. The blades whir, and the aircraft rises in a strong wind; suddenly, it unloads twin AA-12s into a distant wooden target.
Baber keeps several workshops in Piney Flats, on a wide, grassy piece of property straddling a hilltop road. His foundry occupies the back of an eleven-thousand-square-foot single-story warehouse with a pine-log exterior. A lifelong bachelor, he lives in an apartment at the front of the building; in the middle of the complex is a large indoor pool.
Baber has an elliptical paunch, a white walrus mustache, and long sideburns that, along with the red tinted glasses he sometimes wears, suggest a seventies country-music singer. He likes his jeans loose enough to require an occasional hitch, and denim button downs with the pocket flaps splayed open. His voice has a friendly, nasal twang that renders “where” as “whur.”
When I visited, a seven foot-long white helicopter, like the one in the video, sat on a folding table; Baber introduced it as Junior. He didn’t have names for two robots that were on the floor. The larger of them, the size of a Radio Flyer wagon, had caterpillar treads, like a miniature tank. An AA-12, whose cylindrical magazine gave it the look of the tommy guns favored by Prohibition-era gangsters, had been affixed to a small turret. The smaller robot had wheels, and its turret gripped a semi-automatic version of an M-16 rifle, which Baber had re-engineered so that it, too, fired without recoil.
We sat in a pair of office chairs, and Baber grabbed a radio-signal remote control. He switched on the larger robot, directing it across the concrete floor until the treads bumped against my foot. On an LCD display behind Baber, I could see an image of my leg, transmitted by a camera under the robot’s gun barrel. The gun then pointed at my stomach. He assured me that it was not loaded.
We were interrupted by the arrival of Cory Olson, a salesman from Alabama who, like me, had come to see the robots and guns at first hand. A retired Army officer, Olson works for Pelican, which manufactures the high-impact plastic cases Baber uses to store his robots. Pelican’s board of directors is chaired by General (Ret.) Peter Pace, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Baber was hoping to lure Pace out to Piney Flats to see the robots, and he launched into a rapid-fire soliloquy about the capabilities of his “family.” The AA-12, unlike most military weapons, could shoot a variety of ammunition, including nonlethal pellets (“You can just machine-gun a whole crowd with it, if you want to,” he said reflectively) and a specially designed mini-grenade. He’d tested the mini-grenade by shooting it into a car windshield: “They blowout both side windows, take the rear window out, and just shred the car.” The ground robots’ treads enabled them to climb stairs, and a remote operator could use a zoom lens on the robots’ cameras to hold a target at several hundred yards. Such robots could, for example, roll out and defend a soldier wounded in a firefight. A larger ground robot, meanwhile, could be outfitted to carry six smaller ones—”so when it blasts its way in, now you’ve got seven robots in that building.”
Providing air support for this “fighting team,” Baber continued, would be Junior—known more formally as an AutoCopter. It could fly sixty miles an hour, at up to fifteen thousand feet, and could navigate a preprogrammed course without human intervention. It could drop mortar rounds or fire directly at targets on the ground, and could carry up to fifty pounds of cargo-enough to deposit smaller robots behind enemy lines. “Al Qaeda and the Taliban can’t fight directly against our military,” Baber concluded. “This takes away their ability to hide.”
To demonstrate, he opened the workshop door and guided the larger robot onto a concrete porch. As we followed it outside, he spun the turret around to face a grassy slope marred by a wide dirt scar, where Baber and his visitors have fired thirty-five thousand rounds of ammunition into the ground.
“Let’s get our ears out of the way,” he said, and we walked to the far end of the porch. As we looked over his shoulder, Baber hit a red button on the remote control, firing a single shell into the hillside. The report echoed across the surrounding farmland. “Now I’m gonna let you push that button and hold it,” he said, handing the remote to Olson, who depressed the button; the gun rattled off ten shots in two seconds. A furious spray of pellets raised an orangey dirt cloud. The turret shuddered slightly, but the robot remained rooted in position. “That’s powerful,” Olson said, his eyes wide.
Baber took the remote back and began driving the robot around the yard. “You’ve been to Iraq. What if they had these over there?” he asked Olson.
“It would enhance our capabilities, without a doubt.”
“It’d be staggering,” Baber said. The porch was littered with shell casings, and we gathered them up and put them into a trash can already full of them. Driving the robot back inside, Baber said, “If I never sell the first one, I’ll be here until I’m a hundred years old, sitting around playing with ‘em.”
Baber’s back yard is nearly four hundred miles from the Beltway corridors where defense contractors market their wares to Congress and the Pentagon. But his vision of a legion of small armed robots has found some surprising champions. John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California, specializes in networked warfare, and has written a number of influential books on the topic. After seeing Arquilla speak about battlefield technology on the History Channel, Baber called him up to tell him about “the family.” Arquilla was excited enough by Baber’s products to dispatch two graduate students to write theses—now classified—on the AA-12 and the armed AutoCopter. He has also urged colleagues in the Pentagon to consider buying the devices. Baber, he told me, has “given a huge amount of firepower to small platforms.” He added, “We are talking about the possibility of taking our soldiers out of harm’s way, using tele-operated systems. Whether Jerry Baber makes the breakthrough or it’s someone else, this, to a great extent, is the future of warfare.”
Remote-controlled weaponry is already used by the Pentagon and the CIA. In 2002, the Air Force began deploying Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles, which are operated by human pilots based in the Nevada desert. These and other unmanned aerial vehicles—or U.A.V.s—have been deployed widely in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Obama, during his first week in office, ordered continued Predator strikes in northwest Pakistan, where attacks have targeted Al Qaeda and other militants, sparking Pakistani anger over civilian casualties.
On the ground, combat robots have been slower to emerge. Small unmanned ground vehicles, known as U.G.V.s, have been used to defeat improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan; the robots have mechanical arms, and some are equipped with demolition explosives. Just after 9/11, the Pentagon helped fund a project to add a weapon to a robot. The resulting machines—called SWORDS, a tortured acronym for Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Direct-action System—are essentially search-and-rescue robots with an M-240 or an M-249 machine gun attached. Like Baber’s devices, the guns can be fired by a remote operator.
The U.S. military, however, has approached the subject of armed ground robots with considerable wariness. Ellen Purely, the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise, which was established to examine how to develop robots and integrate them into battle situations, told me, “Technology always outpaces doctrine. Basically, we now have a lot of technology but we really don’t know the best way to employ it.”
Concern over arming robots was heightened in 2006, after an incident that occurred when an early version of the SWORDS was being demonstrated at a military show in Albuquerque. After successful tests on the morning of the demonstration, the robot sat in the sun for several hours before observers gathered in a makeshift grandstand. When the operator turned the robot on, a fried wire caused it to spin in place. The assembled crowd ducked and sprinted for cover. Bob Quinn, a vice-president in charge of the project at Foster-Miller, the company that made the robot, says that there was no danger of the gun firing—it had automatically shut off—and that the company fixed the problem and tripled its safety redundancies before the robots were deployed. Even so, skeptics tell the Albuquerque story as an illustration of the possibility of armed robots running amok on the battlefield.
Combat-robot advocates are quick to say that the decision to fire will always remain in the hands of a human operator. Their refrain is “Man in the loop.” Yet several weapons systems, including the Patriot missile and some defense systems built for U.S. Navy ships, can be programmed to shoot without a human pulling the trigger. P. W. Singer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Wired for War,” about the growth of robotic warfare, says, “We’ve already redefined what ‘in the loop’ means. It’s moved from making the decision to fire to mere veto power. The lines are already fuzzy, and they’re disappearing.”
The Army deployed three SWORDS to Iraq in mid-2007. According to Quinn, commanders have decreed that the robots must be kept immobile—surrounded by sandbags—if they are to fire their guns. In Quinn’s view, that defeats the purpose of deploying a remote-controlled weapon. “Unmanned air vehicles have taken twenty years to gain real acceptance,” he says. “The kids who are fighting and dying—those guys get it. The further removed you are from the front the more questions you have about ‘Are we ready?’” Baber, for his part, seems baffled by the military’s worries about deploying aimed robots; as he put it, his are “ready to go out and raise hell right now.”
One result of the Pentagon’s hesitancy is that the competition to build armed robotic systems remains wide open. Baber, despite his outsider status, likes his chances, thanks to his success at eliminating recoil, the lightness of his robots, and their low cost of production. Baber’s approach, Arquilla says, “is simple, robust, and, in my view, highly effective. In the irregular-warfare situations in which we find ourselves, this is a way to both enhance our presence and minimize the risk to our own troops.”
Virtually no one doubts that robots will eventually occupy a central role in the U.S. military. Future Combat Systems, the Army’s one-hundred-and-sixty-billion-dollar modernization effort, calls for a host of unmanned vehicles and combat drones. “It is an unprecedented revolution in military affairs,” Singer says. “This changes the ‘who’ of warfare, at a fundamental level.”
One evening, Baber invited me to stop by and watch him make gun parts in his foundry, a soot-stained room in the pine-log compound. Since some of his employees have other jobs, the work typically doesn’t get started until four o’clock; Baber takes a nap beforehand. “As you get older, you don’t want to run that hard,” he said. In the foundry, three employees were preparing to pour steel parts for a .38 revolver manufactured by the Connecticut gunmaker Charter Arms. The basic technique, known as “lost wax” casting, dates back to the beginnings of civilization.
Each gun part starts out as a piece of hardened red wax. The wax parts are dipped repeatedly in a ceramic glaze, and then the wax is melted, leaving behind a mold into which to pour steel.
The pouring process involved first melting a bar of steel in a three-thousand degree magnetically heated pot. When Baber, using a long thermometer, deemed the steel’s consistency just right, an employee used tongs to grab a hollow ceramic mold out of a large oven. She passed it to Baber, who held it in tongs of his own. As Baber positioned the mold, two employees tilted the pot, pouring the blazing orange liquid into the mold. When the steel cooled, the ceramic exterior would be cracked off.
Baber’s artisanal method allows him to work with rare, high-tolerance alloys that are too strong to be machined into precise shapes after they’ve hardened. Typical castings for gun parts have an error tolerance of plus or minus five thousandths of an inch. “Jerry will hold plus or minus two thousandths, and sometimes closer,” Nick Ecker, the C.E.O. of Charter Arms, told me. “He does incredible things.”
Over the years, Baber has made a tidy living on his gun-parts business. In addition to the workshops, his property contains a large, unoccupied Tudor house; he also owns a vacation house on a nearby lake. An amateur pilot, he has a small Cessna, which he keeps at the local airport and occasionally flies. He doesn’t like to travel farther than a day’s distance from Piney Flats, though. “Money’s not really driving me,” he said. “I like what I’m doing.” Even if he cashed in on the robots, he said, “I wouldn’t live real high.”
Baber grew up an only child in Covington, Virginia, a paper-mill town two hundred miles northeast of Piney Flats. His father was a maintenance machinist, and his mother ran the local Western Union office. When Baber was ten years old, his father took him hunting with a .22 rifle. “My daddy made me shoot a little squirrel,” he says. “That poor little thing was sitting there, looking at me, and just fell over. I didn’t hunt after that.”
Following high school, Baber earned degrees in electrical and industrial engineering from Virginia Tech. He enlisted in the Army after college; assigned to Fort Knox as a tank mechanic, he never left the base. After moving to Piney Flats, he spent a couple of years working on radar systems for Raytheon before he and a partner found a lucrative niche making precision bomb springs, at the height of the Vietnam War. “Everything that came out of airplanes—timing and detonators—came from us,” he recalls. “We built two hundred and eighty-five thousand bomb fuses a month, with four or five springs in each one.” As the war wound down, Baber shifted into precision casting, making airplane-engine parts and other items, until the day a man walked into his shop and asked Baber to “tool up” a gun. Baber crafted a few weapon parts, word of his work got around, and before long guns were Baber’s main business.
In 1987, a friend named Max Atchisson came up to Piney Flats from Atlanta. Atchisson, a former engineer for Hughes Aircraft, had received more than twenty patents, mostly gun-related. Baber took him to dinner at the local Perkins, and Atchisson showed him the plans for an automatic shotgun that could harness recoil, called the Atchisson Automatic Shotgun. Baber was impressed: in Atchisson’s scheme, a specially designed valve on the front of the gun bled off the gas that would otherwise drive the weapon backward. An oversized internal spring absorbed the remaining momentum of the bolt before it reached the back of the gun; the spring then propelled the bolt forward to pick up a new cartridge. In essence, the gun recycled its kickback into the next shot, a property called “constant recoil.”
Atchisson had fallen into debt, and persuaded Baber to buy the plans and build a prototype. When Baber did so, he encountered the difficulty of turning a blueprint into a working weapon. “Every thing was wrong!” he told me. “The magazines were screwed up, the springs were screwed up—it was just a damn mess. Weren’t nothing right in it.” Baber still thought Atchisson was among the most brilliant gun inventors in history. But the original design’s problems, he said, “could make a preacher cuss.”
In order to document the prototype’s flaws in minute detail, he spent close to fifty thousand dollars on a high-speed camera and a bullet trap—a red, coffin-size box that allows him to fire weapons in a controlled environment. Using a computer, he analyzed hundreds of hours of video, frame by frame. After some two hundred modifications to Atchisson’s original design, Baber finally built a working gun—christened the Auto Assault-12.
“This here is the only stainless-steel military weapon in the world,’ Baber said. The chemical properties of stainless steel are such that the gun requires no oil or cleaning. “It won’t rust if you wash it,” he went on. “Get it full of mud, you put a little water in it and slosh it around. I’ve got one here that’s had eleven thousand rounds through it.”
By 2004, Baber had produced ten AA-12s, and, despite the high price tag—between ten and twelve thousand dollars each—the gun was a hit. After articles in Armed Forces Journal and Soldier of Fortune printed Baber’s office phone number, he began receiving upward of a hundred inquiries a day. This created a dilemma, since federal law prohibits Americans from owning fully automatic weapons, unless they have a manufacturer’s license (Baber does). Police departments asked for AA-12s, but Baber decided that the gun was too powerful to sell outside the military.
He donated one to his local county sheriff, but turned everyone else away. “I don’t want that on my conscience—something I created going out and killing people all over the damn place,” he said. “I’m not worried about what it does over in Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s fine.”
The military, however, was less eager than the public to procure the gun. The AA-12 is “almost foolproof,” Major General (Ret.) Carroll Childers, a former weapons designer for the Navy and Marine Corps, told me. “It’s a great weapon for urban-terrain operations or jungle operations.” He continued, “It’s got real knockdown power, and it’s a scary weapon. People cringe at the sight of a shotgun.” But the Army “has this not-invented-here syndrome,” he said. “They reject anything that didn’t come out of there.”
A few years ago, Baber took a pair of AA-12s down to Fort Benning, Georgia, for a demonstration. “The soldiers, twenty-five of them, fired five hundred rounds and loved the gun,” he said. “But the people down there that write requirements for a new weapons system, they didn’t want nothing to do with it.” Loading the guns into his trunk, Baber concluded that there was only one way to convince the government of the gun’s usefulness: robots. Robots with AA-12s would be too powerful to ignore.
He contacted Foster-Miller; the company was interested but turned him down, citing the AA-12′s lack of military approval. Baber approached the defense contractor Northrop Grumman. No sale. He turned to iRobot, a maker of robotic vacuums that also produces robots for the U.S. military. The company liked the recoilless aspect and created a prototype, but then backed off on weaponizing its robots, in order to focus on unarmed systems.
Finally, Baber came across Neural Robotics, the maker of the AutoCopter. Mike Fouche, the company’s founder and C.E.O., recalls, “I got a phone call out of the blue from some guy up in Tennessee who said he wanted to put a gun on a helicopter. He came down a few days later. About half a day later, we had the gun mounted on one of our helicopters. A day later, we actually went out and fired it.”
In mid-2007, Baber and another business partner, a former editor of Armed Forces Journal named John Roos, began showing off the helicopter at military shows. Soon after, Roos heard about two men from Silicon Valley who had been demonstrating a weaponized robot to Blackwater U.S.A., the North Carolina-based security contractor. “If you are looking for something for ground,” Roos recalls being told, “these guys are the state of the art.”
Last year, I went to Palo Alto, California, to meet Adam and Nathan Gettings, of Robotex, Baber’s partner for the ground robots. Adam is a twenty-six-year-old self-taught engineer who designs the machines’ hardware. Nathan, thirty-two, is a former developer for PayPal. The founder of Robotex is Terry Izumi, a special effects technician and an occasional film director in Los Angeles. In the mid-eighties, Izumi worked for the toy company that developed Teddy Ruxpin, the talking bear. For years, he says, he watched the progress of military robotics, “but the technology I was seeing was kind of wanting.” Finally, he decided to “get up and do something about it.” Izumi drew up some ideas for weaponized robots and called up Nathan Gettings. They signed on a couple of YouTube employees as software engineers and hired Adam to start building robots in his living room.
The Gettingses grew up on a farm in southern Illinois. “I was raised a mechanic,” Adam said; as a child, he once attached a weed-whacker engine to a bicycle. “My dad, when machinery would break, would often leave it and more on. So I had this sort of junkyard of old machines I could play with.” Three years ago, he recalls, Robotex developed some prototype robots, but clients said that “they needed something smaller and more portable.” So the Gettingses switched to developing miniature robots with tank treads.
Arming robots was always part of Robotex’s plans, and when Adam saw videos of the AA-12 the recoilless gun seemed like the perfect option for a light weight robot. When Baber called, they were eager to arrange a pilgrimage to Piney Flats. “We didn’t know what to expect,” Nathan says. Baber sat them down and began explaining the weapon. He showed them the high-speed camera. After shooting off a few magazines with the AA-12, Nathan says, “I realized we were dealing with somebody who was really skilled.”
The Gettingses had brought a robot along, and the three men decided to attach one of Baber’s recoilless M-16s. Adam took an hour to set it up, and they took it outside. They shot off one bullet, and when that seemed to work they tried ten, and then thirty. Baber was giddy, proclaiming it to be the future of warfare. “That is a murderous little bastard,” he said.
Robotex’s nominal testing facility, at the time I visited, was in a rented peach-colored bungalow in Palo Alto. “Here’s the safe house,” Adam joked, as we pulled into the driveway. Inside, the house had gray pile carpet and low ceilings. It was devoid of furniture except for a few storage shelves stacked with electronics and robot parts. A surfboard was propped against a wall. In one bedroom, discarded robot prototypes sat partially disassembled. Two updates of the robots I’d seen at Baber’s house were outfitted with toy guns.
Adam, who is tall and loose-limbed, with short brown hair and glasses, switched on one of the robots. “This one is twice as fast as the one that Jerry has,” he said, maneuvering it the length of the house as we watched on a monitor. He steered it into the bathroom, navigating it smoothly around the toilet.
Adam then slipped on a vest that the controllers. He clipped a tiny viewing screen onto his glasses, allowing him a robot’s-eye view. “It’s a video-game-style interface,” he said. In fact, the controller is adapted from a Microsoft Xbox. Adam estimated that the average soldier could learn the basics of driving and firing the robot in the couple of hours it might take him to become proficient in a first-person-shooter video game.
I later asked Adam if he had contemplated making the robots more autonomous. “Oh, yeah,” he said. At first, he said, a robot might be able to handle certain pieces of terrain on its own, without help from a joystick. “Automating firing, that’s taboo,” he said. But, with a little programming, “you could definitely do targeting and tracking. You could have it identify targets, A, B, and C, put squares around them. Then just hit a button and decide which person to take out.”
On my last afternoon in Tennessee, Baber took me in his Impala to lunch at a restaurant outside of town, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. After we ordered, Baber explained why his version of an armed robot was destined to succeed. “Try to put a current military machine gun on a small robot, O.K.?” he said. “The recoil is so had that you can’t hit anything with it!”
I asked Baber if his friends knew about the arsenal he kept at his house. “Oh, I don’t really have friends,” he said. “But there’s always somebody here. I’m never without people, because they are coming all the time, from all over the place, to look.” The week before, it was a group of F.B.I. agents from Quantico, Virginia, who were interested in using the robots for law enforcement. (“I think this is the wave of the future,” one later told me. “But it’s almost too scary to have this thing out there right now.”) And, not too long ago, a gun buyer working on behalf of the Jordanian government showed up to videotape the AA-12 in action. King Abdullah II had taken a personal interest in Baber’s creations and the Jordanians agreed to purchase a pair of the guns for testing, a deal which currently awaits State Department approval. An Israeli defense contractor came to Piney Flats and discussed buying some AA-12s for the Israeli Defense Forces to test. But, given the hassle of export restrictions, Roos says, Baber decided to focus on selling to the military at home.
Sometimes, Baber’s friends and business partners suggest, his sales approach can be a touch too forceful. “He’s not a salesperson, I hate to tell you,” Boje Cornils, a tool-and-die maker who works with Baber, said. “Jerry will talk, talk, talk, and not listen.” Mostly, Baber has the stubbornness of an engineer who believes he alone holds the answers. He told me that when Remington recently called him to discuss buying his operation, he told them to forget it. “I’m gonna be that cantankerous old bastard down in Tennessee that says, ‘I’m not gonna sell,’” he said. (Remington declined to comment.)
A few months ago, Baber decided to design his own mini-helicopter, one light enough to disassemble and carry in a backpack. After a successful test flight in January, he is currently busy building the new U.A.V.’s gun and mortar mounts. Meanwhile, he and his partners have been in talks with the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force and other branches, and plan to show off the AA-12s and the robots to weapons testers for the United States Special Operations Command, next month. Two of Baber’s guns are being tested by Pentagon R. & D. centers on their own unmanned vehicles. Out in California, Robotex received a new round of venture funding, expanding to new offices and a staff of ten, and are in negotiations to supply a Special Forces division with some of its unarmed robots. The military, Baber hoped, was finally starting to wake up to “the way all future wars are gonna be fought.”
In the car on the way back to Piney Flats, Baber picked up his sales pitch midstream: I’ve looked at these robots from pretty much every angle that they need to be. So when they get into the field they’re gonna do what they’re supposed to do.” In the end, the argument for robots came down to a simple proposition. “There’ve always been wars,” Baber said. “If you don’t want to die yourself, you better kill the enemy. I’m doing a great service for our country and our servicemen.”
“If they buy it,” I said.
“They’ll buy it,” he said. “No question. They’ll buy it.” ♦