Drones Get Smarter

We’re moving closer to the day when flying robots will make decisions on their own

There are as many as 7,000 drones in service; apparently manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand. Courtesy of Department of Defense

Last spring, when he was still Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates told cadets at the Air Force Academy that they needed to “shed the nostalgia” for “air-to-air combat and strategic bombing.” Not that they were surprised, but they weren’t exactly tickled, either. Because in all the times they had watched “Top Gun,” not once did Tom Cruise turn into a “joystick pilot.”

It’s one of the not-so-affectionate terms they have for someone who remotely operates an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), otherwise known as a drone. That’s in the cards for more and more  pilot wannabes these days, now that drones have become the muscle in the war on terrorists.

There are now as many as 7,000 drones in service; apparently manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand. Most are used for surveillance, but increasingly they’re the weapon of choice for killing suspected terrorists, and not just in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Somalia and Yemen.

This has raised all kinds of questions–from whether targeted killings from the sky, in any country we choose, are legitimate, to whether drones make war too antiseptic, to when do we start selling them to other countries. And once you begin to talk about where drone warfare is headed, things get a whole lot dicier.

It’s inevitable, say some experts, that drones and other military robots will become autonomous to the point where they’ll be making decisions in combat. What kind of decisions? A recent Washington Post article laid out a scenario in which drones search for a human target, make an identification based on facial-recognition software, then finish the job with a missile strike.

This is known as “lethal autonomy,” a concept that conjures up images of swarming Terminators without the accent. Not necessarily, argues Ronald Arkin, a scientist who has actually done a study for the Defense Department on whether robots can learn battlefield ethics. He thinks it will one day be possible to program machines to return fire at an appropriate level, minimize collateral damage, even recognize when someone wants to surrender.

Until then, we’re likely to see more robots controlled by fewer humans,  say a convoy of robot vehicles following a lead truck driven by a human, or a flock of aerial robots flying in tandem with manned fighters.

The Navy is taking the plunge, too.  It just ordered 28 helicopter drones that can take off and land on a ship.

Meanwhile, on the homefront

Drones are used for surveillance along the Mexican and Canadian borders, but you won’t see them anywhere else in the U.S. At least not yet.  But the Federal Aviation Administration, which has blocked commercial drones because they can’t sense other aircraft, may soon allow them in a few states on a trial basis.  And that could open the floodgates.

  • Sky spies: Police departments are chomping at the bit to get eyes in the sky, although as Brookings Institution researcher Peter Singer puts it,  “That’s a Supreme Court case waiting to happen.”
  • Counting cows: Two Montana universities will soon begin a trial project in which drones will be used to track cattle and analyze crops from above.
  • Farmer optional: Last month an Iowa company unveiled a tractor that can roll across the fields without a driver.
  • Revenge of the paparazzi: Celebrity photo services can’t wait for the day when they can send up drones to snap away at private parties of the stars. Let’s give it up for science.

The Bonus: Take a little sidetrip to DIY Drones, the website of amateur dronians, and watch a homemade robot get airborne.  The soundtrack is a hoot.

Related Article: Drones are Ready for Takeoff

Are you concerned about drone  abuse?  You know, way too many eyes in the sky?

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