Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Big learning curve ahead on U.S. automated weapons, intel

by September 22nd, 2012

U.S. national security and military cost-efficiency will increasingly depend on automated weapons and automated information gathering systems on land, air and sea, but as procurement and deployment grow, coordinating and improving that effort will be a challenge, according to a recent report to top military brass from the U.S. Defense Science Board. As part of a broad re-make of U.S. military might the Department of Defense is increasingly moving away from reliance on humans and deeper into unmanned systems. But the report to the Office of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and DoD Under Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall, issues a warning in a cover memo that “autonomy technology is being underutilized” because of “obstacles within the Department” including poor design, ineffective R&D coordination across military branches, and the rush to deploy some systems without sufficient funding or time to develop the right approaches for training and actual usage.

The board also notes that past studies funded by DoD on improving autonomous systems have focused too much on the types and depths of their technical capabilities but not enough on design and performance enhancements to human-machine collaboration.

While unmanned aerial drones with strike capabilities used in locations such as Pakistan and Afghanistan have attracted great attention, the report details a wide array of other current and future uses of so-called “autonomous” military technology – to gather location data of enemy assets and millions of hours of full motion video on activities in strategic locales, to detect and disarm roadside and underwater explosives, to coordinate a wide array of real-time remote information systems, and launch payloads from sea, air and land.

The report from the science board to DoD makes a number of observations and recommendations. Highlights follow.

  • Unmanned aerial vehicle systems have grown more than ten-fold in the U.S. military from 2001 to 2011 and are expected to grow by another 35 percent in the next decade, and while they have focused more on “tactical reconnaissance” they are now more involved in “strike missions” for “time-critical and high-value targeting” in military theaters including Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. “Warfighters continue to value the inherent features of unmanned systems, especially their persistence, versatility and reduced risk to human life.”
  • Unmanned military systems are being designed in 50 countries, and manufactured in 60. Unmanned aerial systems were flown at the prestigious Paris Air Show for the first time in 2011, and “our potential adversaries are flying unmanned systems over our open-water aircraft carriers and embracing low observable technologies (e.g. Dark Sword unmanned system built by the Chinese).” Unmanned systems to counter those of other nations are a development priority.
  • DoD should put more emphasis on the degree of autonomy within and between systems, rather than just on the number of such systems; and should focus more on vulnerabilities of unmanned systems from physical threats, jamming of frequencies and using the Internet.
  • Improve training simulation tools for operators of unmanned aerial vehicles, and aim for integration of UAVs into U.S. international airspace, which they must be able to share safely with commercial aircraft. “The accident rate for most unmanned (aircraft) systems now mirrors manned aircraft.”
  • Naval unmanned surface vehicles fight submarines, launch missiles, provide maritime security, conduct “electronic warfare” and provide special operations support. Unmanned underwater vehicles can detect and disable mines, do oceanographic research, coordinate navigation communications and deliver time-critical strikes. The Navy’s aim is to integrate autonomous technologies with manned systems “to provide the fleet with both a cost-effective and competitive war-fighting capability into the future.”
  • Considered vital to that by the Navy are longer deployment periods or “dwell times” of 30 to 70 days for unmanned systems. That will have to mean design and performance improvements to help the unmanned naval vehicles better avoid obstacles, fishnets, and hostile vessels, better detect intentions of surface vessels. and better extract assets. The Office of Naval Research is spearheading related work on better algorithms and sensors through its Innovative Naval Prototypes program, with simulations and testing at sea.

    U.S. Defense Science Board charter, and roster)

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