As dark as it may sound, warfare and the need to outsmart the enemy is often a catalyst for new technology, making the defence industry a leader in innovation. In fact, some of the world’s most innovative technologies were borne out of war.
For example, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC) was initially used for artillery firing tables in World War Two and was 1000 times faster than electromechanical machines.
“Everything you’ve probably seen in the consumer arena today has its roots in a defence project: Computers, GPS, networking, wireless communications – everything really started with some military application,” says Alex Zelinsky, chief defence scientist at the Department of Defence’s Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO).
Zelinsky leads a number of research projects at DSTO, one of which is developing a range of autonomous systems. These self-governing systems use sensor data, artificial intelligence, human-machine interfaces, communication networks and fast search algorithms to control actions and are considered the ‘next big thing’ in defence technology.
Emerging autonomous systems include submersibles for clearing mines in the ocean, surface vehicles for monitoring and patrol of waters, trucks for moving heavy equipment, and four-legged robotic ‘mules’ that carry equipment for soldiers.
Autonomy in action
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are now being controlled by autonomous systems, were used by Australian troops in Afghanistan for surveillance of hazardous areas.
UAVs carry a range of sensors, cameras and laser systems to capture footage of an area that feeds back to a screen at a base terminal for viewing in real time by a soldier.
“The soldiers carry a very small UAV that they literally take out of their backpack and throw [into the air],” Zelinsky explains. “It takes off to do some surveillance work, maps out an area and sends live video signals back to see if there are any dangers nearby.”
These dangers include improvised explosive devices or bombs. A soldier can then remotely defuse the bomb using the robotic vehicle, Zelinsky says.
An example of a UAV is the Royal Australian Air Force’s Heron Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), which proved its worth in Afghanistan, says Department of Defence’s CIO, Dr Peter Lawrence.
As a result, the Australian Government has extended its deployment to Afghanistan, providing high resolution intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support until July 2014.
UAVs are also becoming prevalent in maritime patrol operations through the AIR 7000 project. The project will see the current AP-3C Orions aircraft replaced with high-altitude, long endurance UAVs.
UAVs and autonomous systems may be the future of defence, but there are concerns about how they could affect humanity. Zelinksy says it’s important to keep humans in the “centre of the loop” with the ability to control the systems and make decisions.
“The machine shouldn’t decide whether something is a red target or a blue target,” he says. “You really need to put people in the loop where they see the information, they get all the intelligence and they say ‘ah huh, we think this is a legitimate target or it is the right target’. The person with the right authority actually issues the command.”
Autonomous systems can be supervised in the same way people supervise each other, allowing greater degrees of autonomy across certain tasks.
“If the systems just go off and act with [total] autonomy, or are self-governing, then you don’t have any control,” Zelinksy says. “That’s not the way the military operates today and we are certainly not proposing any new technology would work any differently.”
Having a soldier operate a single UAV is all good and well, but it doesn’t offer much of a gain in productivity, Zelinsky continues. The challenge he is working through is to have the UAVs communicate with each other so that one soldier can operate multiple autonomous systems in a coordinated fashion.
This means flying vehicles need to be self-aware so that they don’t collide with each other, maintain high bandwidth communications, and feature high-level command controls.
The human-machine interface is another consideration. “You wouldn’t have nine joysticks for example; it’s just impossible to simultaneously fly nine planes,” Zelinksy points out. “We need to think about how to do that differently. These things would require greater intelligence in the machine itself.”
Another challenge is making autonomous systems more lightweight and energy efficient so they can stay powered for extended periods of time. According to Zelinsky, many soldiers often have to carry batteries weighing up to 20 kilograms each.
“We call [soldiers] Christmas trees at times because they have so much equipment and gadgetry on them,” he says. “So how do you develop technologies that are cheap, light and improve energy usage?”
Zelinsky is watching how technology companies in the consumer space develop user-friendly lightweight gadgets to find a solution. “That’s one thing the consumer electronics business is very good at is building things cheaper, smaller and lighter. Ultimately, we can benefit out of that. The GPS systems were very big initially, now it’s just a chip.”
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