MQ-9 Reaper drone UAV

Drone warfare: the autonomous debate

Image credit: Getty Images

Drones are increasingly becoming tools of war – but would these machines be widely accepted without control from a human operator?

This September, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) announced plans to launch covert drone strikes against suspected Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIL) militants from a base in north-eastern Niger. President Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had sought to put drone operations under military control. However, under Trump’s rule, there has been a move to give the CIA an expanded role in drone strikes. Can society trust those in power to ensure these powerful weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands, or is the ever-growing development in autonomous technology a factor we need to be concerned about?  

Drones have been part of warfare since the 19th century, arguably when the Austrians used pilotless hot-air balloons to bomb Venice in 1849. In fact, the Wright Brothers developed the first remote-control planes during the First World War. During the interwar period unmanned technology began to flourish, with the term drone starting to be used after the UK developed the Queen Bee, a biplane converted to be controlled by radio from the ground, for use as a gunnery training target.

You could argue that such machines were invented with the intention of sparing the lives of the crew, as well as being cheaper to build.

Throughout the years, the US and other nations found they could use remotely piloted aircraft as spy planes. The military drones that we know of today were not created until the 1970s, when former chief designer of the Israeli Air Force Abraham Karem developed an aircraft with glider-like properties. To hold the plane aloft, the gliders were designed to be incredibly long and thin, and could remain at altitude for hours on end. This long flight time is the fundamental reason today’s armed unmanned systems, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, have gained such traction.

Most military personnel, particularly in the Royal Air Force (RAF), prefer not to use the colloquialism ‘drone’ for these types of machine, but rather call them unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These aircraft are guided autonomously, by remote control, or both, and carry sensors, target designators and electronic transmitters designed to interfere with or destroy enemy targets. UAVs are efficient, offering substantially greater range and endurance in comparison to manned systems.

Andrew Jeffrey, a former Tornado navigator and the first RAF pilot to be in command of the remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) 39 Squadron for the MQ-9 Reaper, played an active role in the move from manned to unmanned piloting. He says: “The transition, for me and my crews, was seamless as the construct of the training course was the same as any ‘manned’ aircraft conversion course in the RAF. All my pilots and sensor operators were qualified pilots, navigators or non-commissioned aircrew. I had folk from every flying background in the RAF and they all brought some very useful experiences, having flown on combat or other operations around the globe.”

Military aircraft

The MQ-9 Reaper and its future replacement

The US Air Force’s current primary offensive strike UAV, the MQ-9 Reaper, provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination and reconnaissance against fleeting, high-value and time-sensitive targets. Developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, this UAV was designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance. It is also used by the RAF.

Typically, a fully operational MQ-9 system consists of multiple aircraft, a ground control station and communications equipment. It has been widely favoured by the US Air Force because of its significant loiter time of 12 hours, wide range of sensors, multi-mode communications suite and precision weapons.

By 2024, the Reaper is set to be replaced by a newly developed UAV known as the MQ-9B Protector. With core medium altitude and long-endurance (40-hour flight time) capability, this new system will deliver ISTAR – intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. The RAF version is expected to carry MBDA-built Brimstone missiles.

The use of UAVs in its war with ISIL and its affiliates has generated considerable debate both in the USA and around the world. One side argues that the use of armed drones against elusive terrorists is efficacious and UAVs are cheaper and easier to maintain. However, critics have queried the ethics of drone strikes in killing militants when the growing number of civilian casualties is taken into consideration.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which collects data on drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, found that last year in Afghanistan, up to 149 civilians and 27 children were reported killed during drone strikes, with a total of approximately 2,609 reported strikes over the course of the year in that region alone.

A University of Birmingham Policy Commission, which examined the security implications for the government regarding drone technology in 2014, neatly encapsulated why such advances are so controversial. “Everything about drone technology is contested: its novelty, legality, morality, utility and future development. Even the choice of what to call such systems is value-laden.”

However, Jeffrey argues for the use of UAV technology, saying: “If you look at how warfare has changed throughout the ages, the constant drive of technology has been to improve the range and accuracy of the weapons used.

“What the system does give you is an ‘unblinking eye’ to watch over areas, identify targets and then, when called for, prosecute attacks,” he explains, also highlighting the advantages of these technologies. “You can loiter over targets – unseen unless the opposition has ground-based radar – for hours. This allows you to be certain in what you’re doing and, if the crew deem it necessary, they can get clarification from service lawyers. You do not have to rush anything, which allows you to minimise collateral damage such as civilian casualties.”

Aviation is not the only area where drones are used. There are land- and sea-based counterparts to UAVs, known as unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) respectively.

The US Navy believes unmanned ships have the potential to effectively track and engage enemy submarines for extended periods, with plans to equip ships with anti-submarine weapons and additional sensor suites to gather visual and electronic intelligence.

On land, defence tech companies such as BAE Systems are continuously developing UGVs to assist the army. Last year, it revealed a new vehicle designed to take on some of the most dangerous jobs soldiers currently face. The machine, known as Ironclad, is small enough to endure and stay mobile in rough terrain, and can be fitted to carry out reconnaissance, combat and casualty evacuation roles.

These ground vehicles have the potential to assist the army or defence sectors under the control of a human operator, rather than being a threat to humans. However, many feel that introducing autonomy to machines may be a cause for concern regarding safety because of autonomous combat vehicles’ inevitable lack of control.

The transition from remotely controlled to autonomous may be a daunting one and, as the technology develops, there is increasing concern over the ability to allow lethal machines to operate without the direct control of humans, particularly those vehicles with the potential to damage. Unlike remotely piloted aircraft, autonomous drones – commonly defined as ‘system initiative’ and ‘full autonomy’ in military terminology – can act accordingly based on a choice of options. They can be programmed with numerous alternative responses and react according to the different challenges they may encounter while performing a mission.

Several nations have a rigid definition of autonomous drones, with the UK Ministry of Defence in 2011 describing autonomous military vehicles as “capable of understanding higher level intent and direction”. Military and aviation authorities prefer to refer to UAVs as RPAs to highlight that they fly under the direct control of human operators.  

One challenge for autonomous vehicles is the development of satisfactory validation systems, ensuring that the technology is safe and acts as a human would. Unlike manned aircraft, sophisticated drones would have to undergo large amounts of programming, with many combinations of alternative courses of action, making verification and testing a challenge.

However, the defence procurement minister Stuart Andrew says autonomous vehicles in the military sector have more potential for good than damage. Speaking at the DVD18 military trade show, he said: “Autonomous platforms and artificial intelligence give us the wherewithal to replace soldiers for the most dangerous tasks, or reduce our dependence on deep logistic lines, so we can make better use of our forces.”

Although no truly autonomous airborne drones are operational for military purposes yet, this has not prevented the US Navy and robotic engineers for ground combat vehicles alike from creating their own unmanned vehicles with autonomous capabilities.

Back in April, the US Navy introduced the first autonomous unmanned surface vehicle to its fleet. The Sea Hunter was launched in 2016 as part of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (Actuv) programme.

Christened in Portland, Oregon, followed by up to eight years of development and testing, this warship is a crewless, 150-ton, 40m-long robotic ship. Although still a prototype, the vessel can autonomously patrol the seas for months. According to Darpa, Sea Hunter could ultimately lead to a whole new class of ocean-going vessel and eradicate the need for larger manned warships, transforming conventional submarine warfare.

In parallel with naval developments, Darpa was funding researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Centre to develop an autonomous off-road unmanned ground combat vehicle known as the Crusher.

Weighing 6,000kg, the Crusher is capable of travelling over extreme terrain and can carry up to 3,600kg of combined armour and cargo. It has eight laser detection and ranging (lidar) units, which each send out a laser beam to scan an area and measure how long it takes for the beam to be reflected to the unit’s laser sensor: four scanning the environment horizontally and four vertically. It also uses six pairs of stereo-vision cameras for depth perception and four colour cameras to apply a colour pixel to each point of distance determined by the lidar sensor.

Operators drive the Crusher with video game controllers but, while driving between its waypoints via GPS, it continuously attempts to find the fastest and easiest route to its destination. For example, if there is a big obstruction ahead, such as a gorge more than two metres deep, it would find a way around it without human navigation. There are no plans to place the vehicle into service, but instead it will be used as the foundation for future unmanned vehicle designs.

‘If you look at how warfare has changed throughout the ages, the constant drive of technology has been to improve the range and accuracy of the weapons used.’

Andrew Jeffrey, UTC Aerospace Systems

With technology constantly evolving, it’s inevitable that autonomy will play a vital part in the future of UAV development. Such tech falls under several categories, including: combining information from different sensors for use on board the vehicle, handling communication and coordination in the presence of incomplete information, and motion and path planning in an event of constraints.

Others include: quality control manoeuvre to follow a given path or to go from one location to another (known as trajectory generation), task allocation and scheduling and sequence, and spatial distribution of activities to maximise chance of success in any given mission scenario.

From Andrew Jeffrey’s point of view: “In the future, we will not need as many analysts, as AI and machine learning will allow the operatives to be presented with the intelligence rather than sifting through terabytes of data to find the key data point they need.”  

He also highlights the misconceptions of UAVs that may very well transition to autonomous technology. He says: “The phrase ‘autonomous drones’ conjures up images of machines waging war as they see fit and at the expense of the human. This is not where we are going, and it could be argued that we failed in our collective messaging with UAVs and we must not do the same with autonomy. As with UAVs, the technology of autonomy will come; it is how we present it that is important.”

In commercial sectors, drone technology is continuously developing and evolving. Technology service provider Plextek sees the help that such commercial industries can provide to the defence industry. “The military can take advantage of the innovation and the large amount of funding coming out of the commercial sectors, where the levels of research funding is far and above what the UK defence research industry can provide,” says Peter Doig, Plextek business manager for defence.

An Amazon Services affiliate advertising website called ‘airdronecraze’ says such mechanics have seven potential generations, with current technology sitting in the fifth and sixth generations. These generations consist of automated safety modes, airspace awareness, platform and payload adaptability and intelligent piloting models and full autonomy.

According to the Amazon service, generation one starts with the basic remote-control aircraft. Moving to the second and third includes static design, manual piloting and assisted piloting, along with video and capturing still photos. It is not until you get to generation four and five, in which the drones are becoming transformative designs with 360-degree gimbals, that they can fly with an autopilot. Finally, at generation six, their designs are built to safety and regulatory standards with intelligent-piloting models and full autonomy with airspace awareness.

The website also describes what features are in generation seven, the next chapter for drone technology. As well as incorporating features from previous generations, UAVs will also include enhanced intelligent-piloting models and full autonomy and auto action for take-off, landing and mission execution. Known as ‘smart drones’, they will feature built-in safeguards and compliance technology, smart accurate sensors and self-monitoring capabilities; all attributes which may provide new opportunities for the military.


Drone hacking

Hacking is a crime in itself, but hacking into tools of war is a different ball game. In December 2011, an American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 UAV was captured by Iranian forces. The government of Iran announced that the aircraft was brought down by its cyber-warfare unit located near Kashmar.

According to an Iranian engineer, the drone was captured by jamming both satellite and land-originated control signals to the UAV. This was followed by a GPS-spoofing attack, which fed false GPS data to the aerial vehicle to divert its landing in Iran. In April 2012, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed to have successfully extracted data collected by the drone, and made claims that China and Russia approached them, seeking information about the drone. Incidents such as these are concerning for the public and military alike, as sensitive information may have been exposed to other nations developing weapons.

Until quite recently, any UAVs used in conflict were in the hands of government forces. That’s no longer the case. In a speech earlier this year, defence procurement minister Stuart Andrew noted how the position has changed with the ready availability of commercial drones.

Andrew said: “In Iraq and Syria, we’ve seen how our enemies are adopting ever more ingenious methods to attack us – from trucks laden with bombs to commercially sourced drones packed with explosives that attack us in swarms.”

Peter Doig, business manager for defence at Plextek, makes a similar point, saying: “A cyber attack on a drone is a concern, but the fact that opposing forces can get their hands on this sort of technology that’s being developed by the consumer market is more of a concern.” He also points out that these nations do not have the same procurement and procedures for these aerial vehicles as they do in the UK or the US, for example.

It is not only physical hacking of these machines that security authorities need to prevent, but also the leaking of information about them. This July, it was reported that a hacker had obtained US Reaper documents, which included manuals on the Reaper and details on how to defeat improvised explosive devices, and sold the classified information on the dark web for $200. Once again, the fear is that these details will fall into the hands of those who will use them to do harm.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles