Navy Ponders Legal Implications of Deploying Maritime Robots

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Navy sees in its future large numbers of robotic weapons – unmanned aircraft taking off and landing on ships, as well as autonomous surface vessels and underwater vehicles. 
Much of the technology the Navy needs to build robots is ready for prime time, officials said. But it could take years to sort through the legal and political hoops that unmanned weapons must jump through these days. 
“In the future Navy there will be more autonomous systems,” said Vice Adm. Kendall L. Card, deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance and director of naval intelligence. A much more extensive debate still lies ahead, though, on the potential unintended consequences and liabilities associated with the use of robotic weapons, Card said Feb. 14 at an Association for Unmanned Vehicles International conference in McLean, Va.
Card's comments illustrate the dilemmas that the U.S. military faces as it seeks to expand its unmanned weapons inventory amid the uproar over the Obama administration's use of lethal drone strikes. 
“There are legal implications [to autonomous systems] especially if we put weapons” on them, Card said. “We are going to really have to think our way through this.”
Mini-submarines already are performing duties in surveillance and maritime research, but the Navy has far greater ambitions such as relying on unmanned underwater vehicles for antisubmarine warfare and other combat applications. In the absence of a human operator aboard, could a satellite be trusted to confirm the identity of an underwater vehicle that carries a weapon? That is one of many questions that admirals and lawyers have been hashing out. “Do we want verification from space that we really have contact with the right unmanned vehicle? Or are we just going to let it pull the trigger all by itself?” Card asked.
Other considerations are what happens if a robotic system washes up on a beach. The Navy could be liable if it exploded and injured civilians, for instance. It also would be concerned about classified technology being removed from a vehicle that accidentally went off course and ended up in unfriendly hands.
Legal burdens aside, the Navy intends to pursue unmanned technology aggressively, Card told the AUVSI audience of defense contractors. He said the Navy needs the industry's help to realize its vision.
Surveillance drones will be essential tools in future wars against technologically advanced enemies, he said. Naval commanders will depend on the availability of real-time intelligence, he added. Drones flying over the Pacific Ocean, for example, will collect massive amounts of data. The Navy does not have good enough data-mining technology to sort information so critical intelligence is routed immediately to commanders and less important data gets archived for subsequent analysis.
In a fight against an adversary that threatens to launch missiles against Navy ships, unmanned vehicles could offer the only window into the enemy's capabilities, Card said. Navy intelligence systems cannot see the adversary's network on a display, Card said. “We would like to have one on every ship in the Navy.”
Visibility into the enemy's network is key to defending Navy ships from stealth attacks, he said. “The last thing I want is a bunch of DF-21 [antiship missiles] coming at me over the horizon.”
The goal is to create a network of spy drones that can be controlled by a carrier battle group commander, Card said. Aircraft launched from ships and from land bases would merge into the carrier's airspace and stay there for the duration of a mission.
“We want to operate in anybody's back yard,” said Card. “I think that is what our future Navy will look like.”
Navy officials said the service plans to continue to fund research and testing of unmanned systems despite budget cuts that loom for the entire Defense Department. The Office of Naval Research, which oversees the investigation and testing of unmanned vehicles, stands to lose $230 million this fiscal year if automatic sequester cuts go into effect March 1. 
Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, assured the AUVSI conference that work on unmanned systems will go on, despite the funding cuts. “We are going to get through it,” he said. “Don't throw in the towel.”
For unmanned aircraft, the emphasis is on technologies that allow drones to fly in GPS-denied airspace. The Navy also is seeking artificial-intelligence systems that can take on analysis duties currently performed by humans. Another priority is common controls so a single operator can manage several drones. For its unmanned maritime vehicles, the Navy needs higher energy batteries that would allow a mini-submarines to stay on duty for 30 days or longer. Among the sought-after technology are navigation sensors for unmanned vehicles so they can negotiate their way around ship decks.
The Navy is satisfied so far with its unmanned vehicle programs, said Klunder. Companies that are pursuing new business in this area should focus on how to link systems into a single network, he said. “That is the secret sauce.”
Photo Credit: Navy

Topics: Infotech, Netcentricity, Missile Defense, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology

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