The beach assault began not with a bang but the whirring of drone propellers overhead, a grumble of gears, and the low sweep of the ocean. Frisbee-sized quadcopters raced ahead of enormous, self-driving amphibious assault vehicles. Satellites peered down as robotic submarines probed outward and up. With gigabytes of data flowing between these interconnected machines, it seemed — misleadingly — like a war that did not need humans at all.

From April 19 to 28, the United States Marine Corps put its ideas about the future of amphibious warfare to the test, along with a menagerie of drones and bots. During a ship-to-shore demonstration on Camp Pendleton’s Red Beach, an amphibious assault vehicle, or AAV, crawled out of the ocean like something from a 1950s Japanese monster movie and disgorged a MUTT robot tank armed with a .50-cal machine gun. Another MUTT, a product of an ongoing effort to create piggyback drone teams, launched a small quadcopter. Overhead buzzed the V-Bat, a drone that takes off like a helicopter but flies like a plane, while seagull-like Puma drones fed targeting information to explosives-laden, cannon-fired Switchblade UAVs. After several minutes, with the beach “conquered,” Marines marched in quietly from the north.

Marine Corps leaders have been seeking ways to make robots the first on the beach and first through the door on tomorrow’s battlefield, a multi-year effort. There have been more than a few false starts (remember Big Dog?), and Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, worries that the United States is falling behind peer adversaries like Russia and China.

“A lot of the high-end threats we see today, their governments are putting a lot of their own research and development money into these areas to perform differently on a modern battlefield…We see them moving in areas that we haven’t looked at since the Cold War,” Walsh said.

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