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Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation, Professor of Theoretical Physics, Michigan State University

Friday, September 09, 2016

Defense Science Board report on Autonomous Systems

US DOD Defense Science Board report on Autonomy (autonomous systems).
... This report provides focused recommendations to improve the future adoption and use of autonomous systems.

... While difficult to quantify, the study concluded that autonomy—fueled by advances in artificial intelligence—has attained a ‘tipping point’ in value. Autonomous capabilities are increasingly ubiquitous and are readily available to allies and adversaries alike. The study therefore concluded that DoD must take immediate action to accelerate its exploitation of autonomy while also preparing to counter autonomy employed by adversaries.

... The primary intellectual foundation for autonomy stems from artificial intelligence (AI), the capability of computer systems to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence (e.g., perception, conversation, decisionmaking). Advances in AI are making it possible to cede to machines many tasks long regarded as impossible for machines to perform. ...

Countering adversary use of autonomy (p.42)

As has become clear in the course of the study, the technology to enable autonomy is largely available anywhere in the world and can—both at rest and in motion—provide significant advantage in many areas of military operations. Thus, it should not be a surprise when adversaries employ autonomy against U.S. forces. Preparing now for this inevitable adversary use of autonomy is imperative.

This situation is similar to the potential adversary use of cyber and electronic warfare. For years, it has been clear that certain countries could, and most likely would, develop the technology and expertise to use cyber and electronic warfare against U.S. forces. Yet most of the U.S. effort focused on developing offensive cyber capabilities without commensurate attention to hardening U.S. systems against attacks from others.28 Unfortunately, in both domains, that neglect has resulted in DoD spending large sums of money today to “patch” systems against potential attacks. The U.S. must heed the lessons from these two experiences and deal with adversary use of autonomy now.

While many policy and political issues surround U.S. use of autonomy, it is certainly likely that many potential adversaries will have less restrictive policies and CONOPs governing their own use of autonomy, particularly in the employment of lethal autonomy. Thus, expecting a mirror image of U.S. employment of autonomy will not fully capture the adversary potential.

The potential exploitations the U.S. could face include low observability throughout the entire spectrum from sound to visual light, the ability to swarm with large numbers of low-cost vehicles to overwhelm sensors and exhaust the supply of effectors, and maintaining both endurance and persistence through autonomous or remotely piloted vehicles.


The U. S. will face a wide spectrum of threats with varying kinds of autonomous capabilities across every physical domain—land, sea, undersea, air, and space—and in the virtual domain of cyberspace as well.

Figure 9 (photo on left) is a small rotary-wing drone sold on the Alibaba web site for $400.29 The drone is made of carbon fiber; uses both GPS and inertial navigation; has autonomous flight control; and provides full motion video, a thermal sensor, and sonar ranging. It is advertised to carry a 1 kg payload with 18 minutes endurance.

Figure 9 (photo on right) shows a much higher end application of autonomy, a UUV currently being used by China. Named the Haiyan, in its current configuration it can carry a multiple sensor payload, cruise up to 7 kilometers per hour (4 knots), range to 1,000 kilometers, reach a depth of 1,000 meters, and endure for 30 days.30 Undersea testing was initiated in mid-2014. The unit can carry multiple sensors and be outfitted to serve a wide variety of missions, from anti-submarine surveillance, to anti-surface warfare, underwater patrol, and mine sweeping. The combat potential and applications are clear.

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