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Report: Not all troops trust unmanned systems

Sep. 29, 2012 - 09:14AM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 29, 2012 - 09:14AM  |  
A two-year study by the Defense Science Board concluded that several cultural factors may be hindering the military's most effective use of autonomous technologies such as drones, unmanned submarines and ground-based robots.
A two-year study by the Defense Science Board concluded that several cultural factors may be hindering the military's most effective use of autonomous technologies such as drones, unmanned submarines and ground-based robots. (Air Force)
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Some military operators don't trust the new generation of autonomous systems that are emerging on the battlefield — a negative perception that may be slowing the Pentagon's adoption of new unmanned technologies, according to a new report.

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Some military operators don't trust the new generation of autonomous systems that are emerging on the battlefield — a negative perception that may be slowing the Pentagon's adoption of new unmanned technologies, according to a new report.

Call it fear of Skynet — the destructive, self-aware global computer network from the "Terminator" movies.

"Unfortunately, the word ‘autonomy' often conjures images in the press and the minds of some military leaders of computers making independent decisions and taking uncontrolled action," stated a recent report from the Defense Science Board, a Pentagon advisory group.

"While the reality of what autonomy is and can do is quite different from those conjured images, these concerns are — in some cases — limiting its adoption," the report said.

The board's two-year study concluded that several cultural factors may be hindering the military's most effective use of autonomous technologies such as drones, unmanned submarines and ground-based robots.

The report, completed in July and released publicly in September, recommends that military leaders emphasize the human oversight involved in unmanned technologies.

"It should be made clear that all autonomous systems are supervised by human operators at some level," the report said. "Instead of viewing autonomy as an intrinsic property of an unmanned vehicle in isolation, the design and operation of autonomous systems needs to be considered in terms of human-system collaboration."

The board warns that negative perceptions pose a risk at a time when the defense budget is shrinking and autonomous systems may be vulnerable to funding cuts that delay their development. Pentagon budgets earmark nearly $32 billion for unmanned systems, mostly aircraft, from 2011 through 2015, the report said.

Effective use of unmanned systems is "hampered by doctrinal and cultural issues." Among them:

• There is a lack of "senior service champions" advocating for funding and use, most likely because current senior leaders do not have first-hand operational experience with these systems.

• Current rules of engagement may be "overly restrictive."

• Current systems are developed and built in a way that makes updates difficult without large-scale redesigns.

The report offered numerous reasons why the Pentagon should aggressively pursue unmanned systems, including their capacity for extended endurance on long missions and their potential to reduce manpower requirements and human casualties.

The current development and acquisitions process emphasizes the hardware and vehicle; the Pentagon should consider making institutional changes that shift the focus to the software components, the report said.

The high wartime operational tempo of the past decade also created a difficult environment for the military to integrate new technologies, the report said.

"The urgent deployment of unmanned systems to theater left little time to refine concepts of operation which, when coupled with the lack of assets and time to support pre-deployment exercises, created operational challenges," the report said.

As a result, operational forces often first learned to use autonomous systems in combat.

"Many systems were used in ways not anticipated by developers, and additional staff was required to work around limitations in system capabilities," the report said. Λ

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