Technology soon to make drones deadlier, more autonomous

The Predator and Reaper drones use propeller engines and have long wings that limit their top speeds. They also have difficulty in sensing the ground below them, detecting targets, and maneuvering.

Both drones  are controlled by human controllers that handle takeoff and landings using line-of-sight radios. The drones use GPS systems to find their way to a predetermined target zone.

They utilize, in general, computer technology not dissimilar to what’s on an office desk,” Mark Draper, a researcher with the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio told the Alaska Dispatch. “Lots of displays, a mouse, a keyboard. It may have a trackball, and in the case of certain Air Force UAVs you have a stick and a throttle as in a manned aircraft.”

The Teal Group, an aerospace research firm, predicted that worldwide military UAV spending could double in the next decade from $6.6 billion in 2012 to $11.4 billion in 2022. The number of countries using UAVs is increasing as well. Today only the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Israel operate armed UAVs, but France, Germany, Sweden, Russia, China, and Iran are all developing armed drones, including some with jet engines.

Defense companies in the U.S. such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman are currently testing highly autonomous armed drones.

The advance drones could pose significant problems in the future. Stanford researchers Ryan Calo and Patrick Lin warn that there is a small chance that an advanced drone that does not rely on human controls, could go rouge in combat.

Autonomous robots are likely to be learning robots, too,” Lin told the Dispatch. “We can’t always predict what they will learn and what conclusions they might draw on how to behave.”

One way to achieve the machine “reasoning,” as MIT professor Missy Cummings put it, is to program a robot with what Calo calls “genetic algorithms.” Computer codes which refine themselves through trial and error “until they arrive at the best way of doing something,” Calo says. “Sometimes the resulting behavior is truly emergent.”

Emergent” is academic-speak for unexpected and amazing.

Scientists and the military hope that in the future drones will cut down on the roughly 25 percent of innocent bystanders which are killed during attacks. There is a chance, however, that the future of drones may only add to the deaths of civilians. Lin wants to make absolutely sure we can get the technology right before the military sends a drone out on its own. “We’re reasonably confident that a human can act ethically, to distinguish right from wrong, but we have no basis yet for this confidence about robots.” Lin told the Dispatch.