Thursday, May 08, 2014

Combat Drones: A Fanciful Notion At Best

The prospect of rogue artificial intelligence has weighed on the minds of humanity from Isaac Asimov's I, Robot to the box-office bomb Stealth. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently announced it is seeking to leverage advances in the field in the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS) to increase automation and reduce pilot workload. The ever increasing use of drones has led some to speculate that in the near future one will encounter not only drones, but pilotless aircraft capable of engaging in air-to-air combat. However, the serious technological challenges which are still present mean that possibility is in fact distant, if achievable at all.

The first major impediment is communicating with a drone aircraft. While this is not a major problem for current drones, that is because drones have not been used in a military context against a sophisticated actor, state or non-state. Remote communication of course runs the risk of being jammed, which would leave the operator two choices: accept any uncommunicative drone as lost or program the drone to fly autonomously. 

Autonomous drones pose their own set of problems - namely authorizing a computer to use lethal force. This introduces its own set of serious problems. How would a drone recognize friend from foe? A sophisticated  it would be essentially defenseless - not a condition one wants a likely multi-million dollar piece of equipment to be in. 
opponent could potentially spoof IFF signals in order to fool a drone into attacking friendly or neutral aircraft. It is likely that the risk of a drone shooting down a friendly aircraft or a civilian airline is too great to authorize a drone not being directly controlled by a human pilot to employ weapons. This means that if a drone lost communications,

Ultimately, the prospect of drone aircraft being used in a front-line combat role is a remote one. While killer robots are certainly entertaining fodder for media, they fortunately do not yet imperil the human race.

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