Think of advanced robotics, and it is easy to let your mind wander to the sentient beings depicted in Blade Runner, or the soulless, autonomous assassins in the Terminator franchise.
But, despite widespread press about armed drones hunting down terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the increasing use of ground robots to fight roadside bombs, the truth is that most military robots are still pretty dumb. In fact, almost all unmanned systems involve humans in almost every aspect of their operations—it’s just that instead of sitting in a cockpit or behind the wheel of a vehicle, humans are operating the systems from a joystick or computer often at a remote base far from the action.
Now that is slowly beginning to change.
Next week, one of the Pentagon’s most commonly used robots will finally make baby steps toward greater autonomy. The PackBot, a tracked robot used by US troops to help clear bombs in Afghanistan, will get a number of upgrades that will allows it to operate autonomously in some situations, according to Tim Trainer, a vice president for product management at iRobot, which makes the pint-sized bots.
Still, the autonomous capabilities will actually be fairly limited. In cases where the PackBot loses contact with its human operator, it will retrace its steps back to where it was when it last had communications. While seemingly simple, this small step toward autonomy is a critical improvement: in the past, if the robot lost communications while on its way to defuse a bomb, an explosive ordnance disposal technician would have go and retrieve it, potentially exposing the person to risk.
The upgrade includes other basic elements of autonomy, such as the ability to right itself if it falls over—a big problem in Afghanistan’s rough terrain—and the ability to navigate between specific waypoints, using satellite navigation and overlaid imagery, without constant communications with an operator. “Those are first steps to autonomy,” says Trainer.
The idea is to take these slow steps toward autonomous robot operations so that the military’s confidence grows, explains Trainer. Eventually, he says, the PackBot will be able to perform more complex tasks without human intervention, such as clearing an entire building of potential threats.
While these improvements are a far cry from the notion of robotic foot soldiers, it represents the reality of where military technology is today. “I don’t think you’ll see autonomy as the breakthrough leap,” says Trainer. “It’s not like we’ll have the one autonomous solution.”
Indeed, the Pentagon’s progress toward fielding autonomous robotic systems has been agonizingly slow, concluded a recently released report by the Defense Science Board, a panel of defence experts that advises senior Pentagon leaders. They placed a large part of the blame for a lack of autonomous robots on misperceptions about what autonomy means.
“Unfortunately, the word ‘autonomy’ often conjures images in the press and the minds of some military leaders of computers making independent decisions and taking uncontrolled action,” the report notes. And even though the reality is often much more prosaic—such as having a robot flip over on its own—those concerns have still served to limit the military’s willingness to embrace autonomy.
“It should be made clear,” the panel says, “that all autonomous systems are supervised by human operators at some level, and autonomous systems’ software embodies the designed limits on the actions and decisions delegated to the computer.”