Unmanned Systems in Transition: From War to Peace, From Military to Commercial

by Dr Bill Powers, Research Fellow Potomac Institute for Policy Studies Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities Futures AssessmentDivision, Futures Directorate, earl.powers.ctr(at)usmc.mil 

Military procurement and operations are moving from war to peace while unmanned systems research, development, and manufacturing are moving from military to commercial use. 

As forces redeploy from operations in the Middle East, the peace-time use of unmanned systems (UMS) by the military will reflect a subsequent decrease. Concurrently, progress is being made to provide access to civil airspace, thus enhancing the potential use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) by civil authorities and commercial users. As these transitions occur, there will be myriad adjustments required by both manufacturers and users of UMS. This will provide opportunities for UMS to be used in ways that are currently only imagined…or demonstrated via YouTube videos. Commercial use of UMS is poised to become a far larger market than military employment has ever been. Conversely, the advances realized in the commercial sector, especially regarding autonomy, may well be transferable to military employment through the use of commercial off-the-shelf technology.

As of January 2014 there were more than 2400 different unmanned aerial systems available from more than 715 companies; more than 700 unmanned ground systems from 295 companies; and more than 740 unmanned maritime vehicles from 281 companies. The potential exists for unmanned systems to become an integral part of many aspects of our lives in the next few years.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s (AUVSI) economic report projects that expansion of UAS technology alone will create more than 100,000 jobs (70,000 in the first three years) and generate more than $82 billion in economic impact in the U.S. during the first decade following U.S. airspace integration.

UMS are in a commercialization phase and are being used in a variety of civil and commercial applications1 . Some of the more noteworthy are: aerial and wildfire mapping2 , agricultural monitoring, disaster management, thermal infrared power line surveys, telecommunication, weather monitoring, television news coverage and sporting events, environmental monitoring, oil and gas exploration, freight transport, law enforcement, commercial photography, advertising, and broadcasting. Academia has recognized the potential and has committed to providing the requisite training and education that will underpin the commercial use of UMS with numerous well-known colleges and universities providing degrees that are UAS and robotics related.

In a recent compendium of future oriented studies focusing on foreseeing, two areas made nearly every list as significant technology areas that will impact the next 30 years: robotics and autonomous systems. There are four primary science and technology (S&T) areas that potentially will radically affect future robotics.

First is neuroscience and artificial intelligence, probably the most contentious. Many scientists claim that advances in neuroscience and artificial intelligence are laying the foundation for giving UMS the ability to reason and decide autonomously. They predict that UMS will become part of the social landscape and that as autonomy and intelligence grows, these systems will raise difficult questions about the role of personal responsibility and “machine rights”. The potential dark side to the issue is that systems left to their own devices will enable nearly anyone to employ UMS in a variety of scenarios including as lethal devices.

Second is sensors and control systems that will be necessary to interact safely and effectively with humans. As they become more integrated into society, we will face challenging legal and regulatory issues around how much autonomy robots should be granted. As robotics employment becomes more civil oriented, there will be increasing demand for capable, lightweight, inexpensive payloads that contribute to increased automation and autonomy.

Third is power and energy. Research into advanced power storage and management will enable UMS to operate for hours or days at a time, a necessary step to realizing the full potential of autonomous systems.

Fourth is human-UMS interaction with systems that can partner with humans to perform complex, real-world tasks. In military parlance, this is known as manned-unmanned teaming (MUMT) and in the civilian world, human-robot interaction (HRI). HRI implies a close interaction between the robotic system and the human where robots and humans share the workspace but also share goals in terms of task achievement. This close interaction needs new theoretical models to improve the robot’s utility and to evaluate the risks and benefits of HRI for society. In the manufacturing arena, for example, Carnegie-Mellon faculty and students are researching systems where robots and humans can easily swap the initiative in task execution3 . The demand for commercial systems that are more and more autonomous will increase as users seek to decrease the training required to operate them and decrease the “hands on” nature of systems that are automated but have little autonomy.

The future of UMS is destined to be refined by the transition from military to commercial use but the probable demand for increased capability and autonomy will ultimately present challenges to law enforcement agencies and governments as these technologies are used for activities beyond the peaceful commercial uses for which they are intended. The advances that will almost assuredly occur in autonomy as commercial UMS become more prevalent will make autonomous systems more and more capable and potentially more lethal when used by terrorists or criminals.

1 Market Intel Group (MiG), November, 2010 
2 Predators improve wildfire mapping: Tests under way to use unmanned aircraft for civilian purposes, Tribune Business News, August 26, 2007 
3 Carnegie-Mellon University Robotics Institute 2005-2010 Research Guide, http://www.ri.cmu.edu/research_guide/human_robot_interaction.html, 10 April 2014

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from the Naval Postgraduate School's CRUSER News.


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