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DRONES FOR THE GROUND AND SEA

Until this point, the discussion has focused on drones as unmanned aerial technology. This is consistent with how the term "drone" is conventionally used. It is also consistent with the way many countries have channeled their unmanned resources. The United States' unmanned systems funding shows that the vast majority of resources are dedicated to aerial systems. As Table 4.1 shows almost 91% of the US budget for unmanned systems for the years 2014-2018 are planned for aerial systems. Nonetheless, under the broad heading of unmanned systems and automation, it is worth considering two other domains: ground and sea and this chapter surveys both.

Q. What types of unmanned technologies exist for ground environments?

Many of the technologies associated with ground environments follow closely with the logic behind using unmanned aerial vehicles, which is to carry out tasks that would be too dangerous or arduous for troops on the ground. In a military context, one of the most significant threats posed to ground forces are ambushes. Between 2003 and 2007, ambushes killed more than 3,000 American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Aerial-based surveillance and reconnaissance platforms

Table 4.1 United States Department of Defense Unmanned Systems Funding ($ Million)

Year

Air

Ground

Sea

Total

2014

3775.9

13.0

330.3

4119.1

2015

4819.4

47.0

409.8

5276.2

2016

4467.6

44.3

408.6

4920.5

2017

4217.0

52.7

429.7

4700.4

2018

4419.3

66.0

381.8

4867.1

Total across years

21,699.1

223.9

1960.2

23,883.2

Source: Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap FY2013-2038.

can be particularly helpful in identifying these threats. One unmanned ground vehicle (UGV), the PackBot, which is about the size of a small suitcase, works alongside soldiers to conduct surveillance. In a military setting this allows the vehicle to identify and dispose of explosives, and to check for the use of chemical agents. In a civilian context the PackBot can patrol public settings, using real-time video, audio, and sensor data to assess potential public threats.1 Most recently, PackBots were used in this manner during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil to ensure the public's safety throughout the event.2

A number of UGVs have come to serve a similar function in terms of surveillance and reconnaissance. Indeed, the origins of unmanned ground systems came from the British Ministry of Defense Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team, which was tasked with defusing terrorist bombs in the 1970s. UGVs are now routinely used for identifying and defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As Lieutenant Colonel Arnald Thomas notes, UGVs "avoid human endurance constraints." Humans need rest and have limited attention, two limitations that do not arise in the context of an unmanned vehicle.3 UGVs are also preferable to using bomb-sniffing dogs and therefore are frequently deployed with EOD teams as an alternative to them.

To serve these functions, a UGV often has instruments designed to observe its environment, and will use the information it gathers to make decisions independently, or it will relay the data it collects to a human operator who controls the vehicle remotely. Lockheed Martin and the US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center have partnered together in an attempt to develop self-driving technology that can be installed in the military's vehicles. This would allow supply vehicles to be operated remotely, reducing the likelihood of casualties from ambushes.

One of the most widely used UGVs is the TALON, whose main purpose is bomb disposal but also surveillance of enemy territory, which helps anticipate and avoid ambushes or explosions. Developed by the Army's EOD Technology Directorate, TALON was involved in combat operations in Bosnia in 2000, Afghanistan in 2002, and Iraq throughout the war. It is reported to be remarkably hardy, being all-weather, capable of operating day and night, and amphibious up to a 100-ft. depth. QinetiQ, which makes TALON robots, advertises the hardiness of the technology by reporting that a TALON was "blown off the roof of a Humvee in Iraq while the Humvee was crossing a bridge over a river. TALON flew off the bridge and plunged into the river below. Soldiers later used its operator control unit to drive the robot back out of the river and up onto the bank so they could retrieve it."4 Variations of TALON include the TALON HAZMAT, which uses sensors to test for chemicals, gas, and radiological threats. TALON HAZMAT sends that information back to its controller in real time. It is ideal for scouting out situations in a potentially hazardous environment.

In addition to surveillance and reconnaissance, UGVs can also circumvent threats that humans face in the supply and transportation of materials in a combat zone. The Army has worked to develop an unmanned transport system that is essentially an unmanned convoy. In a 2014 demonstration, the Army operated driverless vehicles that navigated both rural and urban courses, various traffic patterns, and pedestrians, all while keeping to its preprogrammed itinerary. As the head of the science and technology at the Army Capabilities Integration Center indicated, "We're not looking to replace soldiers with robots. It's about augmenting and increasing capability," including "the giant logistics tail" that can be vulnerable to attack.5

While these technologies are characterized by a primarily defensive capability, other technologies foreshadow the type of strike capability that has come to be used on aerial drones. The Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System (SWORDS) builds on the idea of the TALON in that it is remotely operated and durable to damage and water, but is also equipped with several types of weapons, including a grenade launcher or machine gun. Time magazine reported in 2004 that SWORDS was one of the world's most amazing inventions. In 2007 three SWORDS units, each armed with a machine gun, were deployed to Iraq. Although their weapons have never been used, their deployment marked the first time that robots carried guns into battle (albeit without firing a shot). Rumors swirled about why the SWORDS system did not fire a shot, and after speculation that the system had shot errant bullets, the contractor suggested that the Army preemptively decided not to use the system. An Army program manager's explanation for the SWORDS's removal—"once you've done something that's really bad, it can take 10 to 20 years to try it again"—suggests that the military was being cautious with the deployment of the new technology, seeking to avoid a public relations debacle that could set the technology back decades.6

The move to develop an unmanned ground combat vehicle has proven to be challenging. The ground combat vehicle infantry carrier, intended to replace the Bradley fighting vehicle in the 2020s, was cancelled. Nonetheless, the Army is looking to become leaner and meaner, which likely means adopting unmanned technologies that could allow it to reduce combat teams and rely more on robotics. With this goal in mind, the Army issued a document that emphasized a "blue- sky" approach to spark big thinking about the future.7 In other words, the sky should be the limit when it comes to thinking about the future of unmanned ground technologies.

 
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