New Pentagon blueprint sees bigger role for robot warfare
By Anna Mulrine, CS Monitor, December 27, 2013
At a NASCAR racetrack in Miami earlier this month, teams from NASA, Google, and 14 other groups of engineering gurus put cutting-edge robots through some challenging paces.
The aim was to see how well the robots could tackle tasks that may sound simple, but are tricky for nonhumans—including, say, climbing a ladder, unscrewing a hose from a spigot, navigating over rubble, and steering a car.
The contest was dreamed up by the Pentagon’s futuristic experimentation arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and senior defense officials were watching it carefully—well aware that the Pentagon is growing increasingly reliant on robotics.
The Defense Department will become even more reliant on such devices in the decades to come. That’s the conclusion of a new blueprint quietly released by the Pentagon this week, which offers some telling clues about the future of unmanned systems—in other words, drones and robots.
The study, the Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, is meant to provide the Pentagon with a “technological vision” for the next 25 years—a vision that will be “critical to future success” of the US military, according to its authors.
"Over the past decade, the qualities and types of unmanned systems acquired by the military departments have grown, and their capabilities have become integral to warfighter operations," the study notes. "The size, sophistication, and cost of the unmanned systems portfolio have grown to rival traditional manned systems."
In the future, the ideal robots will be able to take on “the ‘four D’s’—jobs that are dirty, dangerous, dull, and difficult” for the US military, says Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Va.
The DARPA competition, for example, was inspired by the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, when workers risked radiation poisoning to try to shut off a key valve.
The US Army and Marine Corps have for years used robots to dismantle roadside bombs in America’s wars, and the DOD is developing pack robots like BigDog—designed by Boston Dynamics, a firm recently purchased by Google—to haul soldiers’ gear in the steep and rocky mountains of Afghanistan.
The Pentagon’s unmanned systems road map signals that the Pentagon will continue to deepen its forays into robotics and artificial intelligence for use on land, in the air, and at sea.
The Navy wants more unmanned underwater vehicles to act as small scouting submarines, able to perform tasks like US port security, enemy port scouting, and the surveying of depths that humans simply can’t reach.
The Air Force wants stealth drones that can operate not only in places like Afghanistan, where the Taliban has no planes or missile systems that could pose a threat to US aircraft, but also in “contested environments,” above countries that do have sophisticated air defense systems.
Within all the services, one considerable engineering challenge for unmanned systems is in the cyber realm: making sure encryption is good enough for protecting data streams that are crucial to the operations of drones and robots.
The ultimate goal is to increase the “persistence, protection, and endurance” of military robots, which will in turn “decrease physical and cognitive workloads on our warfighters, while increasing their combat capabilities,” the Pentagon report notes. “The end state is an affordable, modernized force as a manned-unmanned team with improved movement and maneuver, protection, intelligence, and sustainment.”
In the US military of 2014 and beyond—and in the commercial realms—there is likely to be “more of an interaction between man and artificial intelligence and robotics,” Mr. Toscano says. “There’s a high probability that it’ll be a relationship of man and machine collaboratively living and working together.”
"It’s not going to be man versus machine or machine overtaking man. It’s not going to be an ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ " he adds. "It’s going to be a ‘we.’ "