Autonomous mobility and the military
Technology and Business
In this article, we investigate the controversial world of military vehicle automation and ask:
- How has autonomous technology been advanced through the military?
- What are AVs used for in the military?
- How do we solve the ethical problem of armoured vehicles with no active driver?
As much as we’d like to think all technological innovation is the result of singular moments of genius, progress is usually made in response to a need. More often than one might expect, that need arises through the military – plus, military budgets often exceed civil budgets substantially.
Microwave technology, for example, was developed as a location radar during World War II before its cooking capabilities were discovered by accident. Virtual reality is now associated with entertainment, but headsets like those we now use for gaming were first developed as military flight simulators. The components which make digital photography possible were invented during the Cold War and even the Internet, now so central to everyday life, began as a military venture.
What has all that got to do with driverless? Like each of those technologies, the concept of autonomous transport as we now know it was applied to working models in a military context early on. DARPA’s Grand Challenge launched in 2004 with the American military funding a prize for the fastest self-driving vehicle to complete a tough circuit in the Mojave Desert. Though no vehicles completed the route in 2004, the challenge ran for a further 15 years and sparked innovation in the field, challenging teams to take on city and subterranean environments with some success. Now, driverless tech continues to develop within military spheres.
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What are AVs used for in the military?
As the DARPA Grand Challenge suggests, the potential benefit of using driverless vehicles in military operations has long been realised but creating vehicles which can perform useful functions with little to no human input has proved more challenging. Unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), which perform very simple tasks have therefore become the first among military vehicles to gain some autonomous function.
Often used to transport heavy supplies, autonomous UGVs are used in active operations and technology group QinetiQ have broadened the scope of these vehicles with a few advancements. Using AI, their UGVs can now recognise patterns and navigate without human intervention. The addition of sensors means they can perform an additional surveillance role, acting as a detection tool for active troops. The level of freedom given to such vehicles, though, is strictly limited. QinetiQ’s Keith Mallon explains, “we will never give software the capability to fire a weapon.”
Tanks and armoured vehicles which feature self-driving tech operate under similar limits. Though the US Army is investing in unmanned combat trucks for transportation and hopes these will operate without intervention, armed vehicles are under closer scrutiny. For example, tech such as the Ripsaw M5, a fully autonomous electric tank which can even operate silently, will always be used alongside a manned vehicle.
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What are the expected advantages of military AVs?
According to the advocates of military development, reducing loss of life in combat situations is perhaps the most cited opportunity for this technology. By utilising self-driving vehicles for transport, accidental casualties caused by driving can be reduced – the US Army has invested almost $4 billion in researching and developing autonomous military trucks to date – and the number of soldiers needed to run a convoy would also fall, freeing them up for more important roles elsewhere.
“The Army is interested in autonomous technology because if they can reduce the number of soldiers needed to run a convoy, they can keep soldiers safe,” explains Shawn McKay, author of a recent study conducted by the RAND Corporation. Automating convoys, the team found, could reduce the number of soldiers at risk by up to 78% and would help to prevent fatigue and exhaustion in potentially dangerous situations too.
Plus, applications stretch beyond military forces themselves. Fully functional military AVs could change how organisations deliver humanitarian aid, communicate more easily in multiple languages across the globe and remove humans from the most dull, dirty and dangerous jobs.
How do we solve the ethical problem of armed autonomy?
It’s important to remember that when we talk about AVs in a military context, we are focussing on autonomous mobility, not discussing complete autonomy in warfare. Though that mitigates some concerns, it doesn’t mitigate the fact that environments in which military AVs might operate are incredibly complex, leaving room for error, and an important ethical problem remains.
When humans are removed from these vehicles, and so from the situations in which they are directly placed, there is perhaps more distance between soldiers and the life and death decisions they must make. Properly encrypted and governed by humans, these machines present new opportunities to decrease the human toll of combat. Even when focussing on the mobility of such vehicles, as we are, without those safeguards, or poor versions of them, military forces risk hijacking and misuse. Again, we’re focussing on the mobility aspect here. The discussion ramps up again for any considering the ethical aspect and impact of taking decisions in combat from a remote location. But that is intensely discussed elsewhere.
There is still a way to go before self-driving vehicles are in common use in a military context, but many suggest that AVs will become part of many militaries before they’re commonly seen on public roads and that technology will, surely, trickle down to consumers.
Share your thoughts with us in the comments below. Are you comfortable with the use of autonomous mobility in the military? Do you think the benefits in that context are greater than those we’ll see on public roads?
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