I-Team: Robots Invade Nevada National Security Site - 8 News NOW

Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Chief Photojournalist Matt Adams

I-Team: Robots Invade Nevada National Security Site

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LAS VEGAS -- Humans have been waiting for the day when robot servants will cater to our every whim. Movies and TV portray them as oh-so-helpful, always ready to assist their human overlords.

And it's in this spirit of optimism -- some might say naivete -- that technical whizbangs working for the Nevada National Security Site, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site, have unveiled the MDARS, short for Mobile Detection Assessment Response System. Call them what you want, they're robots. And they are now on the job patrolling sensitive parts of the sprawling desert facility.

"It thinks on its own, and in that regard it doesn't require the constant plume of intervention," said NNSA senior engineer Steve Scott.

Scott beams like a proud new papa in describing his mechanical babies whose first assignment is to patrol the perimeter of a radioactive waste facility at the test site. They are expensive, more than $2 million for the first three, but the government says they will save a lot of money in the long run, in part by freeing up humans to do other things.

"They are like a dog I had in Oklahoma on our farm," said Scott. "You give it boundaries and say, 'This is your responsibility, you take care of this,' and that is how they operate. It's just like an electronic dog."

Make that dogs, because like wolves, these robots can operate in packs. They are aware of each other and aware of themselves. As we recall, self-awareness didn't work out so well in the first Terminator.

"This is your true brains behind the whole unit," said Scott. "There are essentially four computers running inside there to be able to handle everything."

That's great. Four computers to "handle everything," including homo sapiens, which is exactly what the MDARS were designed to do. The lab techs at General Dynamics took them from an idea to operational status in just three years. Which is impressive, even to skeptics who remember the prototypes in Robocop.

The MDARS can patrol areas too large for fences, too contaminated for people, run at 20 miles an hour, detect movement of any kind in a 1,200 meter radius, but differentiate between people and animals. They can operate day or night, using radar, infrared, audio and video capabilities. They can check locks and gates for signs of tampering, cruise around looking for trouble or lurk in the dark waiting for victims -- or rather, intruders.

And there have been many intruders at the test site over the decades -- protesters, trespassers, and even spies.

The bots might also come in handy if you had, say, a non-existent military base that attracts flying saucer hunters.

As a demonstration, Scott put his kids up against a special-ops team.

"We threw our red team guys against them, sneaking across the desert, and it was picking them up about a half mile out. Nailing them right there," he said. "If you come out here, there is a high probability we will find you."

The Department of Energy says their robots are not armed, sort of like Nevada's peace-loving predator drones were not armed before someone attached the sidewinder missiles. While these fellas bear a striking resemblance to the lovable imps from Short Circuit, there is one factoid to keep in mind, "You can't kill them. They keep on running," said Scott.

How comforting. When we asked the DOE if the MDARS will be equipped with something benign, maybe a laser, they didn't exactly say no. Robot? Laser? What does that bring to mind?

Scott says the U.S. Army has its own version of MDARS and those machines have likely been weaponized. The Army says robots will never replace human soldiers, but are like a force multiplier.

At present, the Nevada robots are guarding a location known as Area 5, but may also be deployed to other unspecified areas in the near future.

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