Military Struggles to Find Limits of Robot Autonomy
By Stuart Fox, InnovationNewsDaily Assistant Editor
19 August 2011 5:25 PM ET
WASHINGTON, D.C. – When science meets war, the capability of
technology often outpaces the moral understanding of its use.
Just as conflict forced previous generations to feel out the rule around
the acceptable use of nuclear weapons or poisoned gas, advances in
computer technology and a decade of drone combat has generated a debate
among the military, the defense industry and policymakers regarding how
much autonomy to grant battlefield robots.
Each party agrees that no computer should ever make the decision about
pulling the trigger. However, they also agree that controlling every
action a robot takes wastes military resources and dangerously limits
the capability of these weapons. However, soldiers, bureaucrats and
engineers strongly disagree about whether to err on the side of "killer
robot" or "remote-controlled toy."
"The barrier isn't technical, it's doctrinal," said Ed Godere, a senior
vice president and director of the robotics division at Qinetiq, a
company that makes armed ground robots. "It may be more that they haven't
figured out how to integrate it into how they fight."
The debate largely breaks along occupational lines. Think-tankers and
policy officials envision drones with the most autonomy, with robots
automatically driving convoys, flying supply missions and conducting
reconnaissance. The scientists and companies that design and build these
robots stake out a middle ground involving drones smart enough to follow
orders from humans without micromanagement during a mission. Active
military personnel generally remain the most skeptical of robot autonomy,
and desire a robot only smart enough to alleviate mundane burdens such
as basic vehicle navigation or hauling gear.
Autonomy is a necessary feature for all unmanned systems because in the
future, a single operator may control multiple robots simultaneously.
Without some degree of computer intelligence, no one person could
concentrate on maneuvering an array of ground and airborne weapons at the
"What I see in the future is convoys being lead by a manned vehicle,
and autonomous vehicles following behind it. Also, autonomous air
vehicles working in tandem with manned fighter planes," said Ryan Vander
Ryk, a senior consultant at IHS Aerospace and Defense Consulting. "The
Marines were experimenting with bringing in supplies with a UAV. It was
piloted by someone on the ground, but they wanted to get to the level of
just pushing a button and the robot does the rest."
However, Lt. Col. Nick Kioutas, an unmanned system acquisition officer
with the U.S. Army, said his own experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan make
that level of autonomy seem impractical. Instead of autonomy allowing
soldiers to maximize their control of multiple robots, Kioutas thinks
automation better serves military objectives by freeing up soldiers to
concentrate on the jobs that robots cannot perform, such as using deadly
force or coordinating with other humans.
"You want to have enough autonomy so someone can be in a vehicle, but
not watch the road," Kioutas told InnovationNewsDaily. "You may have one
operator working multiple UAVs, but more likely, you will have one guy
doing less while working a single vehicle."
Manufacturers have been the most proactive in determining how much
autonomy a robot can have and still complete its mission without
endangering soldiers or civilians. To do so, companies such as Qinetiq
engage in extensive testing, putting its robots through the ringer with
soldiers and engineers alike, Godere told InnovationNewsDaily.
Ultimately, they hope to find the correct amount of autonomy before a
proactive robot ever reaches the battlefield.
Of course, if the tests themselves are not trustworthy, then it may
take years of on the job training to determine how smart to make deadly
robots. "Testing of autonomy is very important," Kioutas said, "but we
don't necessarily know how to do it."