It looks like a beefed-up Volkswagen Bug convertible with no windshield and a vintage R2-D2 robot poking above its hatch.
Like the fictional "Star Wars" droid, this robot is meant to help humans, in this case by patrolling remote but sensitive areas of the Nevada National Security Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
With little or no help from human security guards, the first robot of what is known as the Mobile Detection Assessment Response System began roving a 770-acre, low-level radioactive waste disposal area about a month ago to guard against intruders.
"It knows what's safe to drive over and what's not safe to drive over," Senior Technical Security Engineer Stephen Scott said Monday during a demonstration at the 1,360-square-mile facility, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site.
The technology includes a computer-coordinated sensor suite of laser- and heat-detection devices with a color video camera, scanning radar and a two-way microphone system.
It can find and assess an intruder up to 200 yards away and blare out in a man's voice, "Intruder stop. Stop and be identified." The warning is followed by a siren.
It can continue to watch and track the intruder until security officers arrive on scene.
The robot's radars can sense motion more than 1,000 yards away.
The diesel-powered robot platform with four-wheel drive is programmed to travel predetermined courses or go directly to a specific location on the quickest route.
Its infrared sensors are programmed to distinguish between people and animals. But about a week ago, Scott said, "this unit encountered a small herd of antelope and went up and challenged the antelope with a 'Halt. Who goes there?' "
The startled antelope quickly ran off, National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman Darwin Morgan said.
Developed for the Army by General Dynamics Robotic Systems, the robots "are capable of being armed, but we have no intention of arming ours," Morgan said.
Scott said the wheeled platform can travel 20 mph and operate for up to 16 hours until it senses that it is low on fuel and returns to its home base. It has GPS, accurate within inches of where it's traveling.
Scott said the first robot with its command console and NASCAR-like maintenance trailer cost $1.4 million. Two additional units will cost $590,000 apiece.
The combined cost for three robot units, support equipment and spare parts is $2.6 million.
By deploying a robot to monitor the low-level radioactive waste area, the National Nuclear Security Administration avoided spending $6 million to install towers, video cameras, lights, cables and motion-detection equipment for a security system that would have required around-the-clock staffing.
Morgan said test site security requires constant vigilance because the low-level radioactive waste disposal area contains classified materials from cleanup projects in the nation's nuclear weapons complex.
The disposal site in Area 5 contains tainted solid materials such as soil, concrete, debris and laboratory equipment but no liquids or gases.
Any potential nefarious activity must be prevented through monitoring, Morgan said.
Likewise, Scott said, three other areas where robot security is planned have "other assets we need to keep an eye on." He didn't identify them.
The system's voice files offer a selection of 300 sounds and messages such as "Preparing to move" and "Please stop following me."
Scott said the robot's sound files include tunes from Steven Spielberg's 1977 science fiction movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
"The guys at General Dynamics had some real fun developing the unit," he said.
The Mobile Detection Assessment Response System, or MDARS, was developed at the Army's Force Protection Systems facility in Fort Belvoir, Va., and tested over 10 years at the Aberdeen, Md., and Yuma, Ariz., proving grounds.
An MDARS is being used to check the inventory in ammunition bunkers at Hawthorne Army Depot in Northern Nevada.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0308.