soldier launching drone (Army)

DOD's roadmap to integrated unmanned systems

A new Defense Department document maps out the Pentagon's plan to integrate autonomous systems into its operations.

 “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap 2017-2042,” a Defense Department report released Aug. 28, highlights the need for domain-agnostic development and an integrated cross-service approach in the face of the rapid pace of autonomous systems development.

The goal is "to lay a path toward an agile and flexible technology and policy foundation in which unforeseen disruptive technologies and operations can take root, and be seamlessly integrated into the current advancements and efforts across DoD," the report said.

To that end, the document identifies four themes that will drive the military's use of autonomous systems:

1. Interoperability. Manned and unmanned systems must use open and common architectures so information can be quickly transmitted to all stakeholders. Initially, DOD will focus on common architectures that improve interoperability, eventually moving to open architectures for new unmanned systems platforms.

To encourage modularity and interchangeability in software, firmware and hardware, DOD will first focus on retrofitting parts into legacy systems and then shift from hardware to software to increase functionality, decrease costs and support flexibility.  

Current data collection and management capabilities have been platform specific, with little integration across platforms, leading to problems with coverage and delays in delivering quality data to warfighters, the report says. DOD wants unmanned systems to automatically collect and  process data onboard in real time, adjusting to situational changes. To meet that goal, common standards for access and delivery of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data are required.

2. Autonomy. Advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics will increase the usefulness of manned and unmanned systems, but they must be able to gather, process and analyze large datasets and communicate insights to humans so they can make more informed decisions. This human-machine interatction will also give autonomous systems the feedback they need to improve and eventually speed decision-making beyond human reaction time, improving their value to warfighters.

To get to greater autonomy, DOD will first focus on advances that increase safety and efficiency, such as collision avoidance systems for aircraft. As algorithms, sensors and computer processing improve, machines will move from task-level support to operational support, assisting humans as “robotic wingmen” that accompany piloted aircraft, for example. Eventually DOD envisions humans teaming with near-fully autonomous unmanned systems for  operations in contested environments, such as drone swarms supporting warfighters with intelligence or aerial strikes.

When it comes to weaponization of autonomous systems, the roadmap does not rule out a future in which use-of-force decisions can be made without human input.

“DOD does not currently have an autonomous weapon system that can search for, identify, track, select, and engage targets independent of a human operator’s input. These tasks currently rely heavily on a human operator using remote operation, also referred to as ‘tele-operation,’” the report says.

It goes on to point out that multiple groups, including the United Nations, have voiced concern over lethal autonomous weapons systems. Defense officials, however envision scenarios "where the unmanned system is directly supporting forces engaging in hazardous tasks.” Restrictions or a ban on the use of autonomous weapons systems “would severely limit the ability to develop and use lethal autonomous weapon systems,” the report states.

“Unmanned Systems with integrated AI, acting as a wingman or teammate, with lethal armament could perform the vast majority of the actions associated with target identification, tracking, threat prioritization, and post-attack assessment while tracking the position and ensuring the safety of blue-force assets -- minimizing the risk to its human teammates,” the DOD roadmap says.

3. Network security. As DOD integrates unmanned systems into its military strategy, network availability, reliability and scalability becomes increasingly critical. The roadmap points to three key enablers:

  • Cyber operations: To secure networks used by unmanned systems, the department should implement defense-in-depth strategies and track potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the sensors the systems rely on. It should also emphasize network resilience over network defense and allow enable unmanned systems to defend themselves against cyberattacks.
  • Information assurance: DOD should develop information assurance solutions specifically  designed for unmanned systems so that information both within the network and that transmitted beyond the network can be secured.
  • Electromagnetic spectrum and electronic warfare: Since unmanned systems are dependent on the EMS for communication, DOD must make spectrum operations more efficient and agile and harden systems with robust electromagnetic protections.
4. Human-machine collaboration. By combining the strengths of the warfighter with manned and unmanned systems, DOD can create a number of efficiencies, such as carrying supplies for warfighters, completing certain maintenance tasks or reducing the number of human sorties. As sensors, deep machine learning and AI evolve, DOD will increasingly rely upon unmanned systems and allow warfighters to focus on tasks requiring human interactions and decisions.

"Robots will evolve from tools into full teammates that are integrated with our soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors," the roadmap concludes.

Read the full report here.

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