Thinking Tech

Military drone with no human control

Posting in Government

The Navy is testing a new unmanned drone that may make lethal decisions based solely on mathematics and sensors.


A new aircraft from Northrop Grumman might make the idea of "robot overlords" seem uncomfortably real. The X-47B is a completely unmanned drone. Meaning, not only no pilot but no human control from the ground. Its missions are initially planned by humans but once these things are airborne they are guided and controlled by on-board computers.

Unmanned military drones, as we’ve come to know them, are controlled by pilots from a chair maybe halfway around the world. It might seem video-game like, providing such a great distance between the pilot and the reality of dropping bombs on real places and people. But at least there's a human at the controls somewhere, giving the order to fire. Now with the X-47B it will be the decision of an algorithm based on perceived threats that are described by sensors. So it begs the question, where is the accountability if something goes horribly wrong?

From the L.A. Times:

"Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability," said Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert. "This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military's acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?"

Sharkey and others believe that autonomous armed robots should force the kind of dialogue that followed the introduction of mustard gas in World War I and the development of atomic weapons in World War II. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the group tasked by the Geneva Conventions to protect victims in armed conflict, is already examining the issue.

The X-47B is at least a decade from official deployment and there are no plans for it to be on bombing missions. Although it is equipped with a weapons bay that has a payload of 4,500 pounds. But the "X" in the name stands for experimental. So that is what it is, experimenting with the edges of complex unmanned skills. For instance, in 2013 it will become the first unmanned vehicle to take off from and land on an aircraft carrier, which is considered one of the most difficult aerial manoeuvres. It will do this by relying on extremely detailed GPS coordinates and constant interaction with the carrier’s computers that transmit speed and cross-wind data as the aircraft approaches the ship. And it will refuel itself in the air via an aerial tanker.

What remains, however, are some legal issues as government and military leaders need to debate whether machines can make lethal combat decisions. First stop for such discussions will be the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, which was formed in 2009 to keep members of Congress up to date on drone technology.

The number of drones in active duty has exploded in the last decade going from maybe a handful before 9/11 to about 7,500, apparently one third of all military aircraft. And their numbers are likely to keep growing since they are cheaper to build and operate than piloted planes.

So far the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System program is costing an estimated $813 million. In December it was delivered from the Mojave Desert to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland where experimentation will continue in 2012.

[via Los Angeles Times]

Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure