The Pentagon's Vision: Drones Everywhere

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The most interesting bits from a planning document on the future of unmanned vehicles. Will they one day kill autonomously?

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Department of Defense

Style trips us up when we read Shakespeare -- it takes a page or three to acclimate. The meaning then gets easier to grok, though nuances are still hard to convey. The Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, released in 2009 and looking forward to 2034, is like that. How should the U.S. use its drones today? Will we need bigger fleets for future wars? Those questions are quite thoroughly addressed. The Pentagon lays out its varied goals. 

The words aren't pleasant; neither is the meter. But the vision? It is something to behold.

DRONES IN THE AIR, ON LAND, AND BENEATH THE SEA

Did you know that "small unmanned undersea vehicles were considered the main workhorses of the mine clearing effort during Operation Iraqi Freedom," or that submarine drones were "used in support of Hurricane Katrina recovery operations in 2005"? Debate on unmanned vehicles is focused on airplanes. But they're already operating on land and beneath the surface of the ocean.

The Pentagon intends for the trend to continue. Take this passage (try to read past the annoying acronyms for air, ground, and undersea drones):
While UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] may fly in and around urban settings, and UUVs [unmanned undersea vehicles] and USVs [unmanned surface vehicles] may operate in and around ports and marinas, UGVs [unmanned ground vehicles] will be the predominant vehicles expected to conduct missions within buildings, tunnels, and through city streets. This requires that UGVs be able to operate in Global Positioning System (GPS)-denied areas, traverse stairs, deal with elevators, open doors, and possibly even open windows, desk and file drawers, and cupboards, etc. In addition to the challenge of navigating and traversing within buildings, UGVs will need to navigate within and through city streets that will be busy with traffic and pedestrians. Urban streets also mean UGVs will have to contend with curbs, trash, water drains, etc.
Will ground drones one day kill just like the planes? Will some models really pilfer from the drawers in office buildings? Will drones do battle underneath the water somewhere like the Taiwan Strait? What are our undersea drones doing now? Is it a problem that we don't really know?
 
AUTONOMOUS DRONES -- WILL A HUMAN ALWAYS PULL THE TRIGGER?

Throughout its 25-year plan on drones, the Department of Defense writes as if making our fleet ever more autonomous is both a major goal and an inevitability. One stated goal is to "support research and development activities to increase the level of automation in unmanned systems."

States another portion, "First and foremost, the level of autonomy should continue to progress from today's fairly high level of human control/intervention to a high level of autonomous tactical behavior that enables more timely and informed human oversight." This isn't as alarming when you realize that some drones will be completing tasks like clearing mines or getting supplies to wounded soldiers. Wouldn't it be great if those drones were ever more autonomous?

But this passage gave me chills:
For a significant period into the future, the decision to pull the trigger or launch a missile from an unmanned system will not be fully automated, but it will remain under the full control of a human operator. Many aspects of the firing sequence will be fully automated but the decision to fire will not likely be fully automated until legal, rules of engagement, and safety concerns have all been thoroughly examined and resolved.
Evidently meant to be reassuring, my takeaway was: Forget the timeline -- the Pentagon thinks bots will one day kill autonomously; that the law and safety issues will resolve; that killer drones are in our future. 

GROUND DRONES AND CROWD CONTROL

This is another sentence that caught my eye:
On the ground, UGVs are projected to conduct missions such as non-lethal through lethal crowd control, dismounted offensive operations, and armed reconnaissance and assault operations.
Is the operator of a ground drone more or less likely to use excessive force than a riot policeman? We're probably going to find out.

THE WORST JOBS GO TO DRONES

"As the future enables greater automation with respect to both navigation and manipulation, unmanned systems will be able to perform tasks such as fire fighting, decontamination, forward operating base security, installation security, obstacle construction and breaching, vehicle and personnel search and inspection, mine clearance and neutralization, more sophisticated explosive ordnance disposal, casualty extraction and evacuation, and maritime interdiction," the report states.

SHARING DRONE TECHNOLOGY WITH OTHER NATIONS

The Department of Defense plans on it. Says one passage:
Although it is highly unlikely unmanned systems would be designed and developed exclusively for building partnerships, many of the systems discussed above can support Combatant Commanders in their endeavors to build relationships with partner nations .... Those systems that conduct reconnaissance and surveillance can be employed on behalf of partner nations to assist with drug interdiction and insurgent activity.
And another:
Pursue the possibility of inserting promising, reasonably mature unmanned systems technologies into partner nations exercises for initial operational assessments.

DRONE SHORTCOMINGS, CIRCA 2009

When drone pilots complain about "latency," they're referring to the short delay between when events happen on the ground and when the relevant images are beamed via satellite to the drone operator.

Said the planning document:
The ability to positively identify and precisely locate military targets in real-time is a current shortfall with DoD UAS. Reducing latency and increasing precision for GPS-guided weapons is required.
In other words, a few years ago, drones weren't satisfactorily able to "positively identify and precisely locate military targets." Are they now?

You can read all 210 pages of the Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY 2009 - 2034 here.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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