The U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is on a mission to develop more advanced autonomous technology that can turn robots into “teammates” on the battlefield. During the Pentagon’s recent “Lab Day” exhibition, DOD researchers displayed some of the impressive robotic capabilities being developed for defense applications. They also stressed the need for advancements that would have robots functioning more independently in combat and other situations.
Image Source: Wikimedia
Intuitive, Hands-Free Robot Operation
Currently, most defense robots are controlled through a tele-operated system. This means that they must be guided through the use of a hand operated control, requiring a soldier to put down their weapon to make use of a robot while another soldier provides security. Researchers at the ARL are looking for ways to change that level of hands-on interaction to something more intuitive for a soldier in the field.
Robots That Understand And Respond
Chief of the Asset Control and Behavior Branch at ARL, Dr. Stuart Young is working with other DOD researchers to create robots that are able to understand natural human language and respond accordingly. This is part of an effort to make autonomous technology serve more of a teammate function for soldiers rather than just as tools. Getting robots to understand the intent of a mission, rather than just the parameters of a given task, will be a key capability for this type of military technology.
Working Toward Natural Engagement
Dr. Young explained during this year’s Lab Day, “We are focusing on natural language dialogue, which is a bi-directional conversation we can have with the robot. I want to be able to naturally engage with the robots. So if I, for example, say go to that building over there, you might say ‘which one?’ And I could say ‘the tall one.’ It’s a way for us to have a dialogue and disambiguate what you intend for the robot to do.”
Image Source: Hawaii Army Weekly
Keeping Pace With Soldiers
Dr. Young and his associates are examining ways that robots can better understand their environment in a context that’s similar to human understanding, which would then enable them to adapt even with prior experience in a particular setting. They must also be able to do so quickly so they keep pace with soldiers on a mission.
Working In Just Twenty Years?
According to ARL research scientist, Dr. John Fossaceca, these and other robot teammate capacities are just a couple of decades away from reality. “In the future, I envision that soldiers and robots will be working together as teammates, fully dismounted, and robots will be able to understand the intent of the commander, and will have a feedback loop where the robot can get clarification of instructions and understand even the tempo of the operation, understand the context of the environment we’re working in, be able to do automatic exploration, come back with reports, and basically save soldier’s lives. In 20 years, this will be working.”
What are your thoughts on this approach to developing and deploying autonomous technology on various missions? Comment and tell us what you think.
Military Autonomous Vehicles Reduce Personnel Threats But Raise Ethical Questions
Just as developers of autonomous vehicles for civilian roads grapple with programming life-and-death decisions, the defense industry must contend with when and if autonomous equipment should strike a target. Will autonomous military vehicles have an independent ability to make firing decisions or always require human approval for lethal action? With autonomous technologies advancing rapidly, military leaders are now confronted with practical instead of theoretical questions.
West Point Student Smart Machine Exercise
An exercise at West Point had students consider ethical scenarios while testing the other military benefits of autonomous military equipment. Students largely felt uncertain about the amount of authority the machines should be given. The possibilities for independent machine actions have also left military leaders pondering how much control to give up to autonomous machines on a battlefield.
Supportive Military Role
Short of firing weapons based on nonhuman algorithmic decisions, autonomous military vehicles have clear roles to perform in military environments. Rheinmetall, a Canadian defense contractor, has designed a modular unit that soldiers can outfit for different purposes.
Attachments for the autonomous vehicle offer reconnaissance and surveillance functions. The vehicles can also transport personnel in or out of operational areas. They could retrieve wounded people and evacuate them. Other attachments aid in fire fighting or enable detection of radiological, chemical, or biological hazards.
Protecting Personnel From Harm
Autonomous vehicles would reduce risks for military personnel. They could send the machine to perform reconnaissance or sweep for hazardous materials. Machines could enter hostile zones and exchange fire with opponents.
Air, Sea, And Land
Engineers have proposed many uses for autonomous vehicles. Unmanned naval vessels could pursue submarines underwater or fire weapons from offshore to support Marines on a beach. The U.S. Army is currently experimenting with machines that locate enemies and supply tanks with targeting information. The U.S. Air Force has plans for advanced drones that would work in conjunction with fighter planes.
Do you think that military scientists will achieve the next breakthroughs in autonomous vehicles? Comment with your thoughts on where this will lead.
ABOUT West Point
West Point’s role in our nation’s history dates back to the Revolutionary War, when both sides realized the strategic importance of the commanding plateau on the west bank of the Hudson River. General George Washington considered West Point to be the most important strategic position in America. Washington personally selected Thaddeus Kosciuszko, one of the heroes of Saratoga, to design the fortifications for West Point in 1778, and Washington transferred his headquarters to West Point in 1779.
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s mission is “to educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army.”
Rheinmetall Canada offers innovative solutions for vehicle systems and integration, air defense as well as weapon, command and communications, soldier and robotic systems. Furthermore, the offering includes airport ground support equipment. Rheinmetall Canada also customizes systems to the evolving operational needs of military forces in Canada and on selected international markets and is principally engaged in long-term, in-service support for the broad range of solutions.
In addition to offering its own solutions, Rheinmetall Canada provides the Canadian market with Rheinmetall’s broad portfolio of system solutions, services and technologies in the areas of mobility, reconnaissance, management, effectiveness, simulation, and protection.
U.S. Air Force Embraces Digital Twin Technology
Military weapons designers within the WeaponONE program at the Air Force Research Laboratory can now analyze real-time feedback from in-theater weapons within a digital engineering environment. Known as digital twin technology, it mirrors the activity of a weapon or other machine and analyzes incoming data for the purpose of fine-tuning future operation. This allows researchers to identify problems and test solutions digitally so that they can be adopted rapidly during military operations.
Rapid Weapon Adaptations and Improvements Possible
Powerful computers supported by artificial intelligence look for ways to upgrade hardware performance and precision based on the data supplied by real-world conditions experienced by a system in action. The discoveries revealed by a concurrently running digital twin can translate into immediate or near immediate software adjustments that increase weapon efficacy.
Gray Wolf Demonstration
The WeaponONE program demonstrated this marriage of hardware and machine-learning software on Jan. 21, at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida with the Gray Wolf prototype. Gray Wolf is an experimental cruise missile meant for clustered deployment against enemy air defenses.
Gray Wolf involves a 24-hour Air Tasking Order cycle that enables the missiles to collaborate. During the demonstration, officials saw how WeaponONE gathered in-flight data and cross-referenced it with information about the battlefield. This data went through the Advanced Battle Management System and then entered the digital twin for analysis.
New Era of Digital Weapon Engineering
Military scientists expect the digital twin concept demonstrated by WeaponONE to herald the next generation of military weapons engineering. The process speeds weapon development and results in products capable of rapid adaptations in the face of fluid military operations.
Digital twins certainly have applications beyond military purposes. The insights possible by analyzing a virtual representation of a real-world operation can assist manufacturers in many industries by helping them speed up product assembly and increase factory efficiency. Which military and nonmilitary sectors do you think have the most to gain from digital twinning?
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DARPA Wants To Engineer Plants That Serve As Spies
In combat, unconventional sources of intelligence can provide a major advantage when completing a mission and keeping troops safe. DARPA is now working on a technology that could enable the military to gain tactical insight from a very unexpected source: plants.
Image Source: Wikimedia
Detecting Hazards In The Field
By modifying the genes of certain plants, the Defense Department hopes they can be turned into valuable indicators of battlefield conditions, such as the presence of chemicals, pathogens, radiation, and even buried explosive devices. Such capability would rely on plants’ natural responses to environmental changes and various stimuli. DARPA has devoted a new program, Advanced Plant Technologies (APT), to turn plants into reliable battlefield spies.
Image Source: Engadget
Tough And Discrete Enough For The Military
One challenge for making this a reality is creating strains of plants that provide a reliable and readable response to specific stimuli while also ensuring the plant is hardy enough to survive in nature. While previous attempts have successfully produced plants that behave like sensors, they haven’t been as robust as required for this type of defense application. The Department of Defense is now calling for proposals from scientists who can contribute to APT with ideas for cultivating a hardy, healthy plant that appears natural in its environment and can also dependably reveal combat hazards.
An Open Call For Contributions
Potential contributors to the program will have an opportunity to share their proposals at a special DARPA event to be held on December 12th in Arlington, Virginia. Will the APT program ultimately yield plants that rival advanced intelligence gathering technology?
Tell us what you think about this DARPA pursuit in the comments.
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