Saturday, 6 October 2012

Robot wars, a video game or a moral dilemma

The ethics of drone strikes on people is still a grey area, in which humans who look like they are doing questionable actions could be mistaken as adults. James Jeffrey served as an officer in the British Army in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2009, he helped guide drones flying over Helmand Province, where he had to make life and death decisions about whether to engage the enemy. Speaking to Orla Guerin, the BBC's correspondent in Pakistan, he describes how he almost ordered a drone attack on a suspected militant thought to be planting an improvised explosive device.
At the last minute the strike was cancelled when he realised the potential enemy he could see on the monitor was in fact a child playing. Mr Jeffrey also talked about witnessing - via a video link from a fighter jet - a missile strike on Taliban targets in built up areas that left several civilians dead. Having now left the military and living in the US, Mr Jeffrey warns that while drones are a precise and effective weapon they have also made it "too easy to kill".
The comfort of remote warfare can remove the emotions or the moral system-check that a solider will have in the field of battle. The scary thing is thatAccording to data compiled by the New America Foundation from reliable news reports, CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed an estimated 1,886 to 3,191 people since 2004, of which 1,597 - 2,734 were reported to be militants. This means the average non-militant casualty rate over the life of the program is 15-16 percent. In 2012 it has been 1-2 percent, down sharply from its peak in 2006 of over 60 percent.
Technology for flying drones won't stop at the current level already during its final test flight, two modified Global Hawk aircraft flew in close formation, 100 feet or less between refueling probe and receiver drogue, for the majority of a 2.5-hour engagement at 44,800 feet. This demonstrated for the first time that High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) class aircraft can safely and autonomously operate under in-flight refueling conditions. The flight was the ninth test and the first time the aircraft flew close enough to measure the full aerodynamic and control interactions. Flight data was analyzed over the past few months and fed back into simulations to verify system safety and performance through contact and fuel transfer-including the effects of turns and gusts up to 20 knots."
The demonstration could open a world of longer duration drone flights as today's UAVs aren't designed to be refueled in flight. In 2007, DARPA teamed up with NASA to show that high-performance aircraft can easily perform automated refueling from conventional tankers, yet many unmanned aircraft can't match the speed, altitude and performance of the current tanker fleet. The 2007 demonstration also required a pilot on board to set conditions and monitor safety during autonomous refueling operations. Under a $33 million deal in 2010 with DARPA, Northrop agreed to demonstrate refueling with a pair of Global Hawks. Although air-to-air refueling was not originally part of the design for drones like the Global Hawk, Northrop then stated such technology offers a number of benefits. A Global Hawk with a particularly heavy payload, for example, would be able to take off with less fuel, and be subsequently refueled in the air. In addition, a Global Hawk with a unique sensor package would be able to stay on station longer if equipped to receive fuel from another platform.
The X-47B is a completely unmanned drone. Meaning, not only no pilot but no human control from the ground. Its missions are initially planned by humans but once these things are airborne they are guided and controlled by on-board computers.
Now with the X-47B it will be the decision of an algorithm based on perceived threats that are described by sensors. So it begs the question, where is the accountability if something goes horribly wrong?. In 2013 it will become the first unmanned vehicle to take off from and land on an aircraft carrier, which is considered one of the most difficult aerial manoeuvres. It will do this by relying on extremely detailed GPS coordinates and constant interaction with the carrier’s computers that transmit speed and cross-wind data as the aircraft approaches the ship. And it will refuel itself in the air via an aerial tanker.
As flying drones get sophisticated so will land based robotics, DARPA has hosted competitions in 2004 and 2005 to involve private companies and universities to develop unmanned ground vehicles to navigate through rough terrain in the Mojave Desert for a final prize of $2 Million. The field of artillery has also seen some promising research with an experimental weapons system named "Dragon Fire II"(mortar fire system) which automates the loading and ballistics calculations required for accurate predicted fire, providing a 12 second response time to artillery support requests. However, weapons of warfare have one limitation in becoming fully autonomous: there remain intervention points which requires human input to ensure that targets are not within restricted fire areas as defined by Geneva Conventions for the laws of war.
As well as artillery there could be a drone system to replace the soldier. During the early days of the Iraq war, the roboteers at Foster-Miller modified their bomb-disposal machines, to have them carry machine guns, grenade launchers, or rockets. After years of safety testing and modifications, three of these deadly SWORDS ("special weapons observation remote reconnaissance direct action system") robots were recently sent to Iraq. But even now, safety concerns (among other reasons) have kept those machines from firing a shot in combat. But Foster-Miller is already rolling a new model of armed robot one that’s comes with additional extra, built-in precautions, and has been designed from the beginning to fight.
MAARS (Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System) features new software controls, which allow the robot’s driver to select fire and no-fire zones. The idea is keep the robots from accidentally shooting a flesh-and-blood American. A mechanical range fan also keeps MAARS’ gun pointed away from friendly positions. The robot is also equipped with a GPS transmitter, so it can be seen on — and tap into — the American battlefield mapping programs, just like tanks and Humvees.
 These "Blue Force Trackers" have been credited with dramatically reducing friendly-fire incidents during the Iraq war. MAARS comes with an extra fail-safe, which won’t allow it to fire directly at its own control unit.
Born out of the possibilities of sci-fi the Raytheon XOS 2: second generation exoskeleton, has people guessing a probable military use for this type of machine. It can provide the operator superhuman strength to the point that it will never tire of lifting weights so long as the power is on. With extra shielding and a full weapons system it could give the soldier an invincible edge other enemies without this technology. The disadvantage of exoskeleton soldiers would be the clumsy nature of heavy machinery, which makes a easy target for Rock powered grenades or heavy gun fire.
The future of robotics in a combat situation has a potential of reducing casualties, but at some cost. Drone pilots have the luxury of going into combat for several hours and leave the battlefield to come home to their families for dinner. They also have the highest numbers for post traumatic stress disorder. P. W. Singer an American political scientist, explores how science fiction has started to play out on modern day battlefields, with robots used more and more in war. For his book research, Singer interviewed hundreds of robotics scientists, science fiction writers, soldiers, insurgents, politicians, lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists from around the world. We are are now seeing the fallout of using robots in warfare, with the number of news items of drone attack on civilians and the people its effecting. The use of drones and new robotic systems will continue to increase, perhaps solve strategic weakness but present moral dilemmas...

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