Tue, Nov 23, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Trading flesh and blood for metal and oil

With armed forces pouring huge sums into robotics, the face of warfare could change, posing new ethical and legal challenges

By Jon Cartwright  /  The Observer, LONDON

Illustration: Yusah

Faced with an enemy fighter jet, there’s one sensible thing a military drone should do: split. However, in December 2002, caught in the crosshairs of an Iraqi MiG, an unmanned US Predator was instructed to stay put. The MiG fired, the Predator fired back and the result, unhappily for the US, was a heap of drone parts on the southern Iraqi desert.

This incident is often regarded as the first dogfight between a drone, properly known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and a conventional, manned fighter. Yet in a way, the Predator hardly stood a chance. US and British UAVs are operated remotely by pilots sitting thousands of kilometers away on US turf, so maneuvers are hobbled by signal delays of a quarter-second or more. This means evading missiles will always be nigh-on impossible — unless the UAVs pilot themselves.

In July this year, amid a haze of dry ice and revolving spotlights at the Warton aerodrome in Lancashire, BAE Systems launched a prototype UAV that might do just that. With a development cost of more than £140 million (US$225 million), the alien-looking Taranis was billed by the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) as a “fully autonomous” craft that can fly deep into enemy territory to collect intelligence, drop bombs and “defend itself against manned and other unmanned enemy aircraft.” Lord Drayson, the UK minister for defense procurement from 2005 to 2007, said Taranis would have “almost no need for operator input.”

Taranis is just one example of a huge swing toward autonomous defense systems: machines that make decisions independent of any human input, with the potential to change modern warfare radically. States with advanced militaries such as the US and the UK are viewing autonomy as a way to have a longer reach, greater efficiency and fewer repatriated body bags. The UK government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, published last month, cited it as a means to “adapt to the unexpected” in a time of constrained resources. However, behind the technological glitz, autonomous systems hide a wealth of ethical and legal problems.

For some military tasks, armed robots can already take care of themselves. The sides of many allied warships sport a Gatling gun as part of the Phalanx system, which is designed to fire automatically at incoming missiles. Israel is deploying machine-gun turrets along its border with the Gaza Strip to target Palestinian infiltrators automatically. For this “See-Shoot” system, an Israeli commander told the industry magazine Defense News, a human operator will give the go-ahead to fire “at least in the initial phases of deployment.”

Phalanx and See-Shoot are automated systems, but they are not autonomous, a subtle yet crucial difference. A drinks machine is an example of an automated system: You push a certain button and out drops the corresponding bottle. In a similar way, the Phalanx Gatling gun waits for a certain blip to appear on its radar, then fires at it. Autonomous systems, on the other hand, perform much more complex tasks by taking thousands of readings from the environment. These translate to a near-infinite number of input states, which must be processed through lengthy computer code to find the best possible outcome. Some believe it’s the same basic method we use to make decisions ourselves.

High-profile armed systems such as Taranis have the true nature of their autonomy kept secret, but other projects hint at what might be in store. At the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, researchers are using Pentagon funding to develop a six-wheeled tank that can find its own way across a battlefield. The prototype, which tipped the scales at six tonnes, was nicknamed the Crusher thanks to its ability to flatten cars. The latest prototype, known as the Autonomous Platform Demonstrator (APD), weighs nine tonnes and can travel at 80kph.

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