Here’s a Thought: The Pentagon Wants ‘Thinking’ Drones

By Scott Hamilton
The deployment of hundreds of unmanned aerial vehicles in the Afghan and Iraq wars may only scratch the surface of what’s to come, if the vision of some military leaders comes to pass.
UAVs have gained favor as ways to reduce risk to combat troops, the cost of hardware and the reaction time in a surgical strike.

For Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the possibilities of the UAV’s evolution from today’s design to tomorrow’s vision can’t come soon enough. This portends more UAVs, digital versus analog, better technology, combat-capable and cognitive functions.

Changing UAVs from analog to digital surveillance dramatically reduces the number of personnel required to carry out the same missions.

“It takes 19 analysts to run a Predator,” Cartwright said at a recent forum sponsored by the investment bank Credit Suisse. “We just started fielding sensors that can take a single Predator and move it to 64 simultaneous sharing points on the Earth. I can’t stand that math. I don’t have that many analysts.”

Digitizing the surveillance recordings from UAVs not only reduces the number of analysts required, it minimizes the challenges of humans plowing through hours and hours of images in their effort to identify the bad guys or targets. Digital technology can perform these tasks quicker and more accurately.

This also goes straight to endurance, which is a key issue for the armed forces.

“Pilots get tired after five or six hours and start missing things,” Cartwright said. UAVs can remain aloft for 12 or 24 hours or even five days or more. To provide the equivalent amount of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance coverage by conventional means requires scores of service members and hugely expensive airplanes.

“Our biggest capital investments are people,” Cartwright told the conference.

Cartwright said the military is putting personnel “in the wrong place. We are under-utilizing them. Our platforms today outperform a human being in endurance. They are soon going to start outperforming a human being in a mechanical, physical ability to withstand the forces and maneuverability that [the platforms] can put them through.”

For all the advantages UAVs show, however, it is the prospect of adding cognitive power that excites Cartwright the most.

“The competitive edge quite frankly isn’t in either [endurance and digital capabilities], it is in the cognitive power we can put into those platforms to operate and inter-operate with each other without the intervention of a human being. The leverage is probably going to be greatest on the cognitive side, without people in them,” Cartwright said.

“It’s not science fiction; it is easily obtainable,” Cartwright said. “It’s just that we are not going after it, and we’re going to have to.”

This doesn’t mean that people will be totally cut out of the equation.

“Gen. Cartwright is not at the stage where we should go all the way to ‘X’ in terms of cognitive power,” said an officer familiar with his thinking. For example, Pentagon lawyers are concerned that robots such as UAVs should not have the capability to make life-and-death combat decisions because of the possibility of civilian and friendly casualties. But some experts insist the machines may be less prone to such mistakes because they have greater cognitive recognition and they don’t tire as easily as a service member.

“If you have identified ethical concerns, how do you explore technology in context of ethical concerns?” asked the officer. “You can’t take the human factor out entirely. You ask, ‘What do we want to accomplish, what do we want to achieve, and we look at things such as, where is the trigger-puller? You could potentially put the trigger puller somewhere else.”

The overall approach is called observe, orient, design, act, or OODA. “You have people in the design-act part,” said the officer.

Affordability is another key element.

“Any grand strategy is dependent on the ability to afford that strategy,” Cartwright said. “This nation is struggling right now, as is the rest of the global communities, with an economic crisis. Those are the realities we have to deal with.” Cartwright likes to point out that for the price of an F-35 engine, he can buy 100 UAVs.

“As you get more constrained budgets you look for aircraft to maximize value to the taxpayer,” said Chris Ames, General Atomic’s director of strategic research.

“A recent development … is the Avenger Predator C pure jet to move in more benign air space. This aircraft is a game-changer in the UAV industry. It opens the door to continue air superiority in a UAV at a fraction of the cost of a manned aircraft. Quantity and technological quality count. Affordable quantities count,” he said.

A major research effort is for UCAVs, or uninhabited combat air vehicles. The Teal Group is highly skeptical that cognitive UCAVs can perform in combat situations as opposed to surgical strikes.

“The latest visionary role … is to replace conventional combat aircraft,” Teal analysts noted in its 2010 study on UAVs, but called this a “revival of an old idea rather than an entirely new concept … Old experiments were aimed at developing a surrogate for attack aircraft, primarily to carry out dangerous ground attack missions. Today’s futurists see a role for UCAVs not only in the ground attack role, but even as fighter aircraft. The lessons of this experience have long been forgotten.”

While acknowledging that removing the pilot reduces the size of the vehicle and eliminates personnel risk, Teal analysts pointed out that UAVs are easily shot down.

“The current generation of UAVs are sitting ducks for existing missile-based air defense systems, since they are large, slow-moving, and visible to radar,” the study said. “Although advanced concept demonstrations of tactical UCAVs will take place in the next decade, their actual deployment now seems a distant dream. [Teal] believes that UCAV production will be quite small [through 2019] and limited primarily to demonstrators.”

Pentagon contractors are developing high-speed, stealthy aircraft to potentially fill the UVAC roles that are envisioned.

“We’re moving into that arena more and more,” said Ames, of General Atomics, which along with Northrop Grumman, dominate the UAV market. “The Predator C cruises at 400 knots for 30 to 40 hours. This is a real game-changer in the industry. The Navy wants a degree of stealthy survivability. The key is the persistent situational awareness. The benefit of knowledge gives the person the power to execute more efficiently. This is why Gen. Cartwright is anxious to get more of them.”

The possibilities of expanding UAVs’ traditional roles are seemingly boundless.

UCAVs under development include the Air Force’s X-45 by Boeing and the Navy’s X-47 by Northrop Grumman. Both are higher speed stealth designs that would make them more survivable in combat.

The Defense Department is looking at remote mine detection equipment that could be carried on UAVs as a method to detect roadside bombs.

UAVs conduct surveillance over land and launch precision weapons. The Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection perform maritime surveillance in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean for drug interdiction with UAVs that can identify up to 200 radar contacts. Equipped with an automatic ID system, a UAV can verify identities of ships over 300 tons. “You can ID the good guys because only good guys squawk,” said Ames.

The Navy continues research on a new class of UAVs that can be launched from aircraft carriers. The Navy now wants them sooner than the current 2018 deployment target. This is a Northrop Grumman program; Lockheed Martin, General Atomics and Boeing also are interested in pursuing future contracts.

The Navy already deploys small UAVs from submarines, and is considering ways to deploy unmanned underwater vehicles from the Virginia Class and Ohio Class nuclear submarines. The Navy is also researching development of unmanned submersibles.

“One of the things we’re doing right now is adding capabilities to subs and taking advantage of large open apertures in the submarines,” said Franz Edson, director of mission systems and business development at General Dynamics’ Electric Boat shipyard.

The Navy’s universal launch and recovery module has an extending shaft that allows the submarine to stow an underwater robot vertically in missile tubes. The shaft extends, goes horizontal with the UUV and repeats the process for recovery. The prototype will be ready in 2012. The submarine can recover the robot while submerged without divers, using transponders to locate it. A recovery arm can grab the vehicle sort of like the space shuttle, said Edson. “It’s more elegant than that but it’s a great analogy.”

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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