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3 Jan, 2014 23:07

US military report predicts drone swarms, highly autonomous UAVs

US military report predicts drone swarms, highly autonomous UAVs

The US military hopes that drones will be capable of changing their own missions, altering course without a human command, and buzzing through the skies in coordinated groups within the next 25 years, according to a new Defense Department report.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) explained its hopes for the upcoming decades in its Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, released to the public last week. At nearly 150 pages, the report outlines a variety of goals for air, land, and sea vehicles – yet the unmanned aerial systems (as drones are called) are featured prominently throughout.

For all the science fiction fears drones have roused amongst the public, the technology that the military relies so heavily on is still in its relative infancy. The unmanned vehicles rely on GPS systems to determine their course and in some cases bombing routes, which explains in part why thousands of civilians across the Middle East have been killed without cause.

A Pakistani victim of US drone attack rests on a bed after she arrived with her brothers and sisters from the North Waziristan area of Ghundai Village for treatment in Peshawar on November 3, 2012, after US missile hit near their house on October 24. (AFP Photo / A Majeed)

Critics of current US drone operations in the Middle East as well as their proliferation over the country’s airspace are unlikely to find any comfort in the DoD’s Roadmap. Officials hope to install a variety of algorithms, detection sensors, and advanced machine learning into drones that will implant in the machines a set of internal laws that give them more control over their own behavior.

System vulnerabilities and threats are examined, as well as risk of exposure and consequence of system compromise, to proactively establish the foundation of security disciplines as early as reasonable in the developmental life cycle,” the Roadmap notes. “Impact to the program in terms of cost, schedules, and performance is also factored into the determination of appropriate protective measures.”

Unmanned aerial systems currently constitute a major drain on the military's budget. Officials hope to ease this burden without sacrificing any firepower by shifting many of the human responsibilities to the drone itself. Taken literally, this process involves ending the execution of step-by-step commands and employing commands that the report notes may “require deviation from pre-programmed tasks.”

Along with surpassing budgetary constraints, the authors of the Roadmap anticipate that, should US drone dominance ever be met with an adversary, American strategies will be “more effective through greater automation and greater performance.”

To make this goal a reality the Roadmap predicts the development of “swarms” of drones that are shot from a larger unmanned vehicle that carries them within range of a target. The so-called “mothership” would be guided by an on-board camera with a human pilot guiding from a military base. When that pilot identifies a target within a range of 250 nautical miles, he would fire the drone swarm with the aim that they will explode on target.

Yet the DoD seems to recognize that these goals will not be achieved without some measure of resistance.

Regulatory and cultural hurdles must be carefully considered early in system development,” the report notes. “In this paradigm, technology development and tests will help shape the appropriate requirement, standards, and regulations.”