Thursday, March 19, 2015

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) 

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,, 10 April 2014

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Can small AUVs Work at Sea?

The researchers at CoCoRo continue to push the limits of autonomy and swarming behavior with autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).  Recently, they've taken their AUVs out of the controlled laboratory tanks and into the wild, with small scale tests in ponds, lakes, and protected ocean harbors. These robots are prototypes designed to explore small scale autonomous group behavior.  But the ocean tests hint at possibilities of using smaller marine robots to perform useful functions.

Unmanned Underwater Vehicles employed in military and research operations range in size from man portable, weighing less than 100 pounds, to monsters such as Boeing's Echo Ranger, which weighs more than 5,000 kilograms.

Small scale AUVs weighing less than a few kilograms or so are limited in endurance primarily due to battery size.  More importantly, the ocean environment presents a number of challenges for tinier AUVs including surf and currents, poor visibility, and even hungry marine predators.   But CoCoRo's tests of their "Lily" and "Jeff" robots are early indications that these types of AUVs can operate on a limited scale in ocean conditions.

What say you Naval Drones readers?  Can small AUV's do real work in a maritime environment? If so, what are some potential applications for mini-AUVs? Can the obstacles the ocean presents to AUVs be overcome with larger numbers of vehicles or swarming behavior?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Exploring Unmanned System Autonomy in the DoD

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from the Naval Postgraduate School's CRUSER Newsby LCDR Nathaniel Spurr, NPS Systems Engineering Student, ncspurr(at) 

The objective of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy (CTNSP) symposium held on February 24th 2015 at the National Defense University was to foster an open, unclassified discussion regarding the potential that unmanned system autonomy has within the Department of Defense (DoD) in the 2025 timeframe. This topic was of critical importance to the development of SEA-21A’s integrated project that seeks to provide a recommended maritime system of systems (SoS) to support over-the horizon targeting (OTHT) in a contested littoral environment during the same period. The symposium began with a keynote address by General James E. Cartwright, USMC (Ret), former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff where he emphasized the partnered role of autonomy and human interaction, followed by presentations from various discussion panels comprised of government, military, and industry subject matter experts to address autonomous system limitations, their associated operating environments, and perspectives on current and future military progress.

From the symposium’s outset, it was clear that one of the most important points when discussing autonomy (in any capacity) was to first properly define the term. In this day and age of unmanned systems and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), the word autonomous is often misused. Additionally, it is important to note that there are few (if any) fully autonomous systems currently in use by the DoD. As Paul Scharre of the Center for New American Security (CNAS) defines it in his article “Between a Roomba and a Terminator: What is Autonomy?” “…autonomy is the ability of a machine to perform a task without human input.” He continues by defining an autonomous system as “…a machine, whether hardware or software, that, once activated, performs some task or function on its own.” This definition implies a certain level of “thinking” or inference by the autonomous machine, thereby suggesting that it is capable of learning. Therefore, describing unmanned systems like Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8 FireScout, for example, as “autonomous” isn't quite accurate. While some of its tasks such as takeoff and landing have been automated like many of our existing commercial and military aircraft have, they are not truly autonomous in nature because those tasks still require a human to interact with the system through the input of specific waypoints for navigation or defined parameters for takeoff and landing (e.g., desired glide slope, airspeed, and altitude). Additionally, in the performance of these tasks, these systems still require a human “on” the loop (i.e., human supervision), so the tasks, though automated, are not truly autonomous.

With the definitions of and differences between “autonomous” and “automated” established, much of the symposium’s discussion focused on the current state of unmanned systems and what progress might be seen in the DoD by 2025. It is important to note that it was of universal agreement by both the panel experts and the audience that implementation of autonomous lethality (or “weaponized autonomy”) in the DoD was unlikely for the foreseeable future due to the significant cultural, ethical, and policy concerns surrounding its use. Similarly, there was also mutual agreement across the symposium’s attendance that unmanned platforms will always augment manned platforms, with the former unlikely to completely replace the latter in DoD use. This also reinforces Scharre’s position that the term “Full Autonomy” (human “out” of the loop) is meaningless and that we should instead focus on “…operationally-relevant autonomy: sufficient autonomy to get the job done.” These associated levels of operationally-relevant autonomy will, therefore, continue to have a human either “in” or “on” the loop and keep the current and future DoD unmanned systems focused on the relationship between the human and the machine as autonomy continues to bring the information age into the robotics age.

All opinions expressed are those of the respective author or authors and do not represent the official policy or positions of the Naval Postgraduate School, the United States Navy, or any other government entity.