The scene is a future battlefield. On the ground, driverless tanks advance and fire with deadly accuracy, while insect-like vehicles scurry across all but impassable terrain. Overhead, pilots guide their aircraft by talking aloud in the cockpit and aim missiles with the movement of their eyes. Higher still, orbiting jets blast satellites back to earth. All this is surveyed from computer consoles by commanders who refine their strategies and issue new orders as the fighting rages.
While the ability to wage such high-tech combat will remain a dream, or nightmare, for years to come, it is very much a gleam in the Pentagon's eye. Working largely through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a special unit devoted to exotic weaponry, military planners are developing a generation of computerized land and air systems that Buck Rogers would envy. Prototypes are being built by defense contractors around the U.S., and will be tested in coming months at sites ranging from private proving grounds to engineering laboratories.
Many of these experimental weapons, of course, may never find their way into the American arsenal. Some may prove impractical, while others may fail to win congressional funding. Only a fraction of past DARPA projects have been deployed. But the 27-year-old agency, which helped develop the cruise missile and the Stealth bomber, has had a powerful impact on strategic thinking. Among the sophisticated systems now under way:
THE HEXAPOD. A six-legged manned vehicle that resembles a cross between a giant grasshopper and an Erector Set horse. Planned for use over hilly, rocky or swampy areas that would bog down jeeps and tanks, the l0-ft.-tall Hexapod is designed to lurch along at up to 8 m.p.h. by taking 9-ft. steps. Clint Kelly III, director of DARPA's Office of Engineering Application, calls the gawky-looking device the most technologically advanced off-road vehicle ever constructed.
Powered by a modified 900-cc Kawasaki motorcyle engine, the Hexapod walks with the aid of 16 on-board computers. The data processors get their information from sensors and use it to guide the vehicle forward, backward or to the side. Scientists at Ohio State, who have spent $5 million so far developing the Hexapod, will put the machine through its first walking test this fall.
AUTONOMOUS LAND VEHICLE. A robot-like, driverless device on which work is well in progress. The 15,000-lb. behemoth "sees" through a television camera linked to a built-in computer that matches images to data in its memory and decides which way the vehicle should go. The blue-and-white ALV successfully lumbered down a Denver test track earlier this summer. Though it negotiated the narrow, half-mile course at just 3 m.p.h., that was far faster than in any previous trial.