The X-47B drone, above, marks a paradigm shift in warfare, one
that is likely to have far-reaching consequences. With the drones ability to be
flown autonomously by onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and
destruction can be dealt by machines operating semi-independently.
(Chad Slattery, Northrop Grumman
/ January 25,
The Navy's new drone being tested near Chesapeake Bay stretches the boundaries
of technology: It's designed to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, one of
aviation's most difficult maneuvers.
What's even more remarkable is that it will do that not only without a pilot in
the cockpit, but without a pilot at all.
The X-47B marks a paradigm shift in warfare, one that is likely to have
far-reaching consequences. With the drone's ability to be flown autonomously by
onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and destruction can be
dealt by machines operating semi-independently.
the X-47B lands
Although humans would program an autonomous
drone's flight plan and could override its decisions,
the prospect of heavily armed aircraft screaming through
the skies without direct human control is unnerving to many.
"Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability," said Noel Sharkey,
a computer scientist and robotics expert. "This is difficult with a robot
The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it
the commander who used it?
The politician who authorized it?
The military's acquisition process?
The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?"
Sharkey and others
believe that autonomous armed robots should force
the kind of dialogue that followed
the introduction of mustard gas in World War I and
the development of atomic weapons in World War II.
International Committee of
the Red Cross,
the group tasked by
the Geneva Conventions to protect victims in armed conflict, is already
deployment of such systems would reflect
a major qualitative change in
the conduct of hostilities," committee President Jakob Kellenberger said
at a recent conference. "The
capacity to discriminate, as required by [international humanitarian
law], will depend entirely on
the quality and variety of sensors and programming employed within
Weapons specialists in
the military and Congress acknowledge that policymakers must deal with
these ethical questions long before
these lethal autonomous
drones go into active service, which may be a decade or more away.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said policy probably will first be discussed with
drone caucus that he co-chairs with Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa
Clarita). Officially known as
the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus,
the panel was formed in 2009 to inform members of Congress on
the far-reaching applications of
"It's a different world from just a few years ago we've entered
the realm of science fiction in a lot of ways," Cuellar said. "New
rules have to be developed as
new technology comes about, and this is a big step forward."
drones now piloted remotely have become a central weapon for
the CIA and U.S. military in
their campaign against terrorists in
the Middle East.
Pentagon has gone from an inventory of a handful of
drones before Sept. 11, 2001, to about 7,500
drones, about one-third of all military aircraft.
Despite looming military spending cuts, expenditures on
drones are expected to take less of a hit, if any, because
they are cheaper to build and operate than piloted aircraft.
All military services are moving toward greater automation with
their robotic systems. Robotic armed submarines could one day stalk enemy
waters, and automated tanks could engage soldiers on
"More aggressive robotry development could lead to deploying far fewer U.S.
military personnel to other
countries, achieving greater national security at a much lower cost and most
importantly, greatly reduced casualties," aerospace pioneer Simon Ramo, who
the intercontinental ballistic missile, wrote in his
new book, "Let Robots Do
Air Force wrote in an 82-page report that outlines
the future usage of
drones, titled "Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047," that
drone aircraft are key "to increasing effects while potentially reducing
cost, forward footprint and risk." Much like a chess master can outperform
proficient chess players, future
drones will be able to react faster than human pilots ever could,
the report said.
And with that potential comes
new concerns about how much control of
the U.S. is willing to turn over to computers.
is no plan by
the U.S. military at least in
the near term to turn over
the killing of enemy combatants to
the X-47B or any other
autonomous flying machine. But
the Air Force said in
the "Flight Plan" that it's only a matter of time before
the capability to make life-or-death decisions as
the battlefield. Even so,
the report notes that officials will still monitor how
"Increasingly humans will no longer be 'in
the loop' but rather
the execution of certain decisions,"
the report said. "Authorizing a machine to make lethal combat decisions
is contingent upon political and military leaders resolving legal and ethical
Peter W. Singer, author of "Wired for War," a book about robotic warfare, said
automated military targeting systems are under development. But before
drones are sent on seek-and-destroy missions, he said,
the military must first prove that it can pull off simpler tasks, such as
refueling and reconnaissance missions.
the X-47B comes in.
"Like it or not, autonomy is
the future," Singer said. "The
X-47 is one of many programs that aim to perfect
X-47B is an experimental jet that's what
the X stands for and is designed to demonstrate
new technology, such as automated takeoffs, landings and refueling.
also has a fully capable weapons bay with a payload capacity of 4,500
the Navy said it has no plans to arm it.
Navy is now testing two of
the aircraft, which were built behind razor-wire fences at Northrop
Grumman Corp.'s expansive complex in Palmdale, where
the company manufactured
the B-2 stealth bomber.
Funded under a $635.8-million contract awarded by
the Navy in 2007,
the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration program has
grown in cost to an estimated $813 million.
the first X-47B had its maiden flight from Edwards Air Force Base, where
it continued testing until last month when it was carried from
the Mojave Desert to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern
Maryland. It is
the next stage of
the demonstration program begins.
is slated to first land on a carrier by 2013, relying on pinpoint GPS
coordinates and advanced avionics.
The carrier's computers digitally transmit
the carrier's speed, cross-winds and other
as it approaches from miles away.
X-47B will not only land itself, but will also know what kind of weapons it is
carrying, when and where it needs to refuel with an aerial tanker, and whether
there's a nearby threat, said Carl Johnson, Northrop's X-47B program
manager. "It will do its own math and decide what it should do next."