Beyond remotely piloted aircraft and desktop computers, airmen could soon see advanced autonomous systems that can think, sense the world around them and make decisions, the Air Force's chief scientist said Tuesday.

The applications could include range from high-tech computers that process data and plan strategy, to cockpit devices that aid aviators, to actual unpiloted drones.

"There’s clearly been a lot of interest in autonomous systems," said Dr. Greg Zacharias, at an event hosted by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. "We could transform many Air Force missions depending on the level of autonomy we could develop."

With computers becoming better and faster, the Air Force is looking at a wide range of possibilities to aid the war fighter.

"If you start with the human part of it and think about humans doing their tasks manually right now … how do I augment or enhance that?" Zacharias said. "The notion is both the human and machine together will do better than either one alone."

Among the possibilities airmen could see deployed to the field are:

  • Advanced wearable electronics that monitor health and stress levels
  • Targeting and communication computers to help troops both on the ground and in the air stay connected and relay information
  • Computers that would learn from cyber hacks and start coordinating defenses against the next attack
  • Thinking and learning machines to help planners strategize and prepare for missions by presenting several options for action

As early as the 2020s, the Air Force could implement the "wingman" concept – fully automated drones that would fly alongside manned aircraft.

"Unmanned vehicles that are truly unmanned, they're flying themselves, they're not being flown by a ground controller," Zacharias said. "Rather it's flying itself in tandem, say, with another vehicle, another piloted vehicle."

The Pentagon has already put out a request for information to defense contractors about building such wingman drones, and prototypes are undergoing testing.

"The Air Force Special Ops guys are working with an unmanned vehicle that will launch from their C-130 and can go down under the clouds to take a look at what’s going on, without risking the C-130 and its compleiment," Zacharias said.

Computers that can detect and decide on the world around them could even be built into smart munitions, he said. Small diameter bombs, for example, would "have these systems switch out when they recognize they're being jammed and switch to a different mode of navigating."

Those systems could help protect drones by giving them the ability to detect threats and respond.

Speaking about the MQ-1 Predator, Zacharias said, "It's incredibly unaware of what's going on around it. It basically has that soda straw camera, it's looking down on the ground and has no idea what's flying around it, what's being aimed at it or what other mission opportunities are there."

Satellites are currently likewise oblivious to threats against them.

"They've got their payload and they're focused on their particular mission but not necessarily on themselves. [They can't] perceive what's going on around them, defend themselves if attacked," Zacharias said.

But there are ’s a couple of issues that still need to be worked outthrough. One of them is training airmen how best to work with the computer systems and what they can do together. Another is reminding airmen that although the systems are autonomous, there is still a human component to carrying out missions.

"One of the problems is when you automate the mission and parts of the mission, tasks in the mission, then the operator becomes less vigilant, more complacent," Zacharias said.

"There are also issues with trusting these systems," he continued. "If you don't trust them, you won't use them.  If you overtrust them, you'll misuse them."

The military needs to be very careful in how it uses such technology, Zacharias said.

"We've got autonomous systems in commercial applications like Amazon's distribution center. The end of the world is not going to come if one of these systems bumps into a forklift truck," he said. "But we know in a military situation we have big issues with collateral damage, with mission failure. These are high-threat actions that we have to guard against."

Any chance of killer robots on the loose?

"I think there's always that concern. I don't want to downgrade it," Zacharias said. "I think on the one hand, if you look at all the [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] challenges and the robotics challenge and these robots falling over, we're a long way away from the Terminator walking through the rubble."

But the Defense Department is starting to put out rules about when, where and how these new autonomous systems can be used.

"Essentially [these are] the policy for applying these systems in warfare," Zacharias said. "I think we're very sensitive, [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] is very sensitive to it; the Air Force is too."

But Zacharias believes the largest gain isn't going to come from anything lethal.

"I think most of the benefit is going to come from these non-killer weapon applications. I think they're going to come from decision aids and more; things that can really leverage people's intelligence more and improve command and control," he said.

Still, it's a new world of computer-human pairing that people will have to adapt to.

"It'll be, probably, a technology push and then a readjustment of policy," Zacharias said. "We're going to deal with [driverless] cars on the roads. We don't know who to sue when there's an accident. That will evolve with time, and I suspect the same will happen with the introduction of autonomous systems."