Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Robo-Ethics: Exploring Ethics of Unmanned Combat Systems

by Kenneth Stewart, NPS, kastewar(at) nps.edu 

Students and faculty from the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) and the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) recently came together with teams of junior officers from U.S. Navy Third Fleet to discuss the ethics of unmanned systems for the 2015 iteration of the Robo-Ethics Continuing Education Series. This year’s event was led via video teleconference by NPS Associate Professor Ray Buettner, April 14.

“We are interested in exploring the ethical boundaries of robotic systems … preparing tools to figure out what the future will be like,” said Buettner.

But as student and faculty researchers wade into the at-times turbulent waters of unmanned systems, they are also exploring the many ethical considerations that autonomous combat systems present. “Should a machine be able to decide to kill, and if so, what does ‘decide’ mean?” Buettner asked assembled students and others joining via video teleconference from USNA and elsewhere. “The key concept to consider may be, ‘where is the human relative to the selection of the target and the decision to engage,’” said Buettner. “Do we want discrimination authority granted to the human loop?”

Another area of concern being debated is the question of punishment and accountability. Researchers, ethicists and policy makers are asking questions like, ‘Who do we hold accountable when a lethal autonomous system engages the wrong target?’

While it may seem counterintuitive to debate whether or not a human should be “in the decision loop,” Buettner points to serious debates among ethicists as to whether or not humans or machines are more likely to make errors that cost human life.

Coincidentally, while Buettner and his group debated the ethics of unmanned systems, the United Nation’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) was meeting in Geneva to debate a proposed ban and moratorium on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS).

Buettner believes that there is currently no need for a prohibition against lethal autonomous systems, noting that current law already adequately provides necessary safeguards in this area. He is referring in part to Directive 3000.09, which the DOD published in 2012 to provide guidance on the development of autonomous systems. The directive places a series of regulatory safeguards on autonomous systems development while simultaneously encouraging innovative thinking and development in the autonomous systems arena.

“So far, no country has declared an intent to deploy a totally autonomous lethal system that decides who to kill and when,” Buettner noted. “Almost all fully autonomous systems are defensive.”

Buettner also noted NPS Professor Wayne Hughes’ views on the rapidly changing nature of autonomous systems. “The fundamental error in a debate over robotic development is to think that we have choice,” quoted Buettner. “This world is coming, rapidly coming.

“We can say whatever we want, but our opponents are going to take advantage of these attributes,” he continued. “That world is likely to be sprung upon us if we don’t prepare ourselves.”

NPS Assistant Professor Timothy Chung has long recognized the utility of research in this area. He is a pioneer in the area of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) swarms. “How do we take evolutionary changes in UAVs and use them to achieve revolutionary effects?” asked Chung.

In addition to exploring the ethics of unmanned combat systems, Buettner and Chung showcased ongoing CRUSER initiatives, many of which were born of student research. Current projects include the use of QR Codes in network-deprived environments and the feasibility of wireless underwater computer networks.

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

Navy's Planned Patrol Boat Fleet Will Distribute More Mine Clearance Capability

Navy Minesweeping Boats (MSBs) cleared mines
and fought their way through Vietnamese waters.
Sea mines are simple, affordable, and prolific, yet one of the most lethal weapons of naval warfare in the past 50 years.  Countering this threat remains a significant challenge for even the most advanced navies. The eleven remaining Avenger class Mine Counter Measures ships in the U.S. Navy's fleet are divided between two forward deployed home ports, Bahrain, and Sasebo, Japan.  These single purpose ships will be gradually phased out in favor of new unmanned, off-board mine clearance technology embarked on a variety of platforms, such as the Littoral Combat Ship.  

The Navy is also planning for smaller craft, such as the MK VI patrol boat to carry Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) for mine clearance.  During the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Navy utilized small UUVs launched from the shore and inflatable zodiacs to find mines in Iraq's rivers. More recently, international navies have experimented with the concept of launching UUVs from rigid hull inflatable boats in Middle East waters during a series of mine warfare exercises. Additionally, a recent study by Lieutenant Andrew Thompson at the Naval Postgraduate school demonstrated that a variety of UUVs could prove successful in a large scale mine-clearance effort. Thompson's computer modeling concluded that factors such as UUV altitude, track spacing, number of passes, resupply, and search speed influenced the overall success and mission completion time of unmanned mine-hunting.

Though the use of unmanned vehicles aboard boats for mine clearance is a relatively new concept, fiberglass-hulled mine-sweeping boats (MSBs) served during the Vietnam War and even smaller wooden hulled boats, such as the 36' mine-sweeping launches (MSLs) served in World War II and Korea. Earlier mine-clearance boats focused on neutralizing mines in inshore waters with manual or acoustic sweeping gear.  New MCM boats with UUVs could conceivably conduct both shallow and deep-water mine-hunting.   

In support of this new distributed mine-clearance capability, the Naval Sea System Command (NAVSEA) Support Ships, Boats, and Craft Program Office (PMS 325) recently issued a request for information to industry to solicit assistance with requirements definition and procurement strategy in order to replace its large fleet of force protection boats currently serving with Naval Expeditionary Combat Command's Coastal Riverine Force.  Up to 100 of the 40 foot long boats, currently designated "PB-X," will be procured. 
ARABIAN GULF (May 2, 2015) Sailors assigned to Commander, Task Group 
(CTG) 56.1 unload a UUV from a rigid-hull inflatable boat during mine countermeasures training operations aboard the Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication
Specialist 1st Class Joshua Bryce Bruns/Released)

In addition to protecting harbors and inshore waters, the patrol boats will apparently serve in an a mine hunting capacity. According to the RFI, "the craft should be capable of launching, operating and recovering unmanned systems such as a MK18 Mine Countermeasures Underwater Vehicle System Mod MK 18 Mod 2." This UUV is based on the commercial Remus 600 UUV, commonly referred to as the Kingfish, and capable of operations at up to 600 meters in water depth.  

H/T Lee