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    The Pentagon's Vision for the Future of Military Drones

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Image: Department of Defense

    The Defense Department released its updated roadmap for the future of military drones this week, outlining the 25-year plan to "take the 'man' out of 'unmanned'" warfare, to quote one of the more colorful bullet points in the report.

    According to the DoD, getting more, better drones in combat is crucial for the future success of the U.S. military. The blueprint lays out the government's strategy for how to make modernized unmanned systems "ubiquitous on the battlefield," even as the defense budget faces $487 billion in cuts over the next decade.

    To take the long-term vision first, the Pentagon will aim to develop fully autonomous machines by 2030 or beyond. Despite the name, current unmanned aerial vehicles still rely on a human operator. They can cruise on autopilot and carry out preprogrammed tasks, compensate for small deviations in the plan and rely on automation in an emergency. But the machines can't figure out on their own how to accomplish a given goal.

    The Defense Department wants to change that. It wants drones that can perceive, analyze, plan, react, and make decisions without human intervention. In other words, adapt to snags in the plan or changes in the environment. So it's investing in artificial intelligence and machine learning research with an eye toward creating a machine that mimics the human brain, and eventually cutting the human out of the loop altogether.

    Putting aside the obvious morality concerns of such a thing, the upside of smart autonomous drones is that they cut costs; one of the DoD's biggest expenses is manpower, according to the report. Not to mention drone pilots are susceptible to human error, and have the ethically sound but strategically inconvenient tendency to incur psychological damage when drone strikes go wrong.

    Drone technology development timeline, via the report

    And so the long-term view of the future is smart teams of autonomous, human-less war-bots making group decisions in battle. But before that sci-fi scenario comes to pass, the emphasis will be on figuring out how unmanned systems and humans will work together in combat—drones as soldiers' "loyal wingmen." Or to use the military term, Manned-Unmanned System Teaming, or MUM-T.

    It’s not going to be man versus machine or machine overtaking man. It’s not going to be an ‘us’ versus ‘them,’” Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International told the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s going to be a ‘we.’”

    That goes for air, ground, and maritime battlefield robots. And the Department of Defense is also incorporating a fourth regime into its drone plan: cyberspace. Anticipating an increase of drone hacking attempts, it plans to better encrypt its eyes in the skies to make sure the sometimes top secret data being collected and transmitted doesn't wind up in enemy hands.

    In keeping with its vision for a "smaller and leaner" military that's agile, flexible, fast, and cutting-edge, the DoD will work on "miniaturizing" drones and drone weapons to make them smaller, lighter and less energy-consuming. The report points out that keeping up with the latest technology will likely happen alongside (or more likely, lag behind) advances in civilian drones, which “hold much promise for domestic commercial applications and personal consumer use,” it states. “This trend could indeed reduce the price point of these systems for the military, which is good news for the U.S. taxpayer."

    With some long-term future projects deferred, the DoD is focusing on developing a smaller number of high-performing drones. Image: Department of Defense

    The government will also pour its own research dollars into studying emerging technologies that could transform drone warfare over the coming decades—things like quantum computing, robotics, genetics, big data, alternative energy, computer models and simulation, and nanoparticles, which could potentially create super-powerful explosions while taking up a smaller surface area.

    Indeed, the DoD plans to increasingly equip its UAVs with a variety of different weapons: "kamikaze" drones with Switchblades aimed at minimizing civilian casualties, drone-mounted lasers to shoot missiles, even rockets. The report steered clear of the debate over lethal autonomous robots, but suffice it to say that despite the Pentagon's plan for man-less warfare within 25 years, at least in the near future, humans will still be doing the killing.