WASHINGTON—One look at the unblinking electronic eye and dark contours of the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System and it’s hard not think of Skynet, the fictional computer in the Terminator film that becomes aware of its own existence and sends robotic armies to exterminate humans.

The brawny combat robot, made by QinetiQ North America, a unit of the U.K.’s QinetiQ Group PLC, rolls on tank-like treads. It boasts day and night-vision cameras, a four-barrel grenade launcher and a 7.62mm machine gun.

Military robots are a deadly serious business, and the gadgetry on display at the Unmanned Systems North America exhibition here underscores the shift by defense companies to selling combat by remote control. The Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consulting firm, forecasts that worldwide spending on unmanned aerial vehicles will grow to around $11.3 billion by the end of the decade from current spending of around $5.9 billion a year.

Christopher Langford, product manager for QinetiQ’s unmanned systems group, called the robot an “escalation of force” tool that has been delivered to U.S. special-operations forces. It can stand sentry at a checkpoint, and warn people away with a police-style hailer, a non-blinding laser, tear gas or smoke grenades. As a last resort, it can fire lethal rounds.

Unmanned systems are already widely employed as weapons of war. Armed Predator drones strike insurgent hideouts in Pakistan and Yemen. Over Japan, pilotless military surveillance planes recently inspected the damage from a nuclear disaster.

Of course, the spending on robots is still a fraction of the $220 billion global aerospace market, dominated by the military and commercial sales of giants such as Boeing Co. and European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co.

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