Skyborg: AI control of military drones begins to take off

In June 2021, Skyborg took control of an MQ-20 Avenger drone during a military exercise in California.

The influential State of AI Report 2021, published in October, makes the alarming observation that the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) for military purposes is now moving from research into the production phase.  The report highlights three indicators which it argues shows this development, one of which is the progress that the US Air Force Research Laboratory is making in testing its autonomous ‘Skyborg’ system to control military drones.

Skyborg (the name is a play on the word ‘cyborg’ – a biological lifeform that has been augmented with technology such as bionic implants)  is intended to be an AI ‘brain’ capable of controlling an aircraft in flight.  Initially, the technology is planned to assist a human pilot in flying the aircraft.

As is often the case with publicity material for military equipment programmes, it is not always easy to distinguish facts from hype or to penetrate the technospeak in which statements from developers are written.  However, news reports and press statements show that over the past year the US Air Force has for the first time succeeded in demonstrating an “active autonomy capability” during test flights of the Skyborg system, as a first step towards being able to use the system in combat.

Official literature on the system states that Skyborg is an “autonomous aircraft teaming architecture”, consisting of a core autonomous control system (ACS): a ‘brain’ comprised of both hardware and software components which can be used to both assist the pilot of a crewed combat aircraft and fly a swarm of uncrewed drones. The system is being designed by the military IT contractor Leidos, with input from the US Air Force and other Skyborg contractors.  It would allow the aircraft to autonomously avoid other aircraft, terrain, obstacles, and hazardous weather, and take off and land on its own. Read more

Drones in the Sahel: in whose interest?

Last week’s military coup in Mali brought brief attention from the world’s media to the Sahel. But behind the latest headlines, drones are a growing part of the ongoing conflict in the region.

French troops guard a Reaper drone

On 21 December 2019, France carried out a drone strike for the first time, killing seven alleged jihadist fighters in central Mali. In total, 40 terrorists were killed during the weekend-long operations which took place in an area controlled by the group, Katibat Macina. The news of the strike came just two days after Florence Parly, France’s defence minister, said its fleet of MQ-9 Reapers had finished testing with laser-guided missiles at an airbase in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Until this point, French Reapers in the Sahel-Saharan strip had been used primarily for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Now, the French government argues, the idea is for the military to have an additional strike capability in its missions, supporting states in their fight against terrorist groups and thus bringing stability and security to the region. The reality, however, is a little hazier than that.  Read more

Book Review ‘Eyes In The Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare’ by Arthur Holland Michel

Arthur Holland Michel, author of ‘Eyes In The Sky’, is one of the co-founders of the Centre for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York State.  The Centre for the Study of the Drone has done extraordinary work in monitoring the spread in the use of drones, including publication of ‘The Drone Databook’, a detailed country-by-county study of military drone capabilities;  a comprehensive study of counter-drone systems; and a weekly round-up of news and developments in the world of drones.

With this pedigree, and Michel’s background as a journalist reporting on technical issues, we can expect an authoritative and carefully considered account of the topic he has chosen to investigate in this book: the emergence of wide area persistent surveillance systems and their use in warfare and policing.  Based in large part on interviews with insiders, ‘Eyes In The Sky’ gives a balanced but nevertheless worrying account of the dramatic implications that wide area surveillance will have for society.  Read more

Drones, targeted killing and the Soleimani Strike

Remains of vehicle following US drone strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport

A week ago, a US air strike that officials (speaking off-the-record) acknowledged was carried out by a Reaper drone, killed senior Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and up to 10 others, travelling in a two-car convoy outside Baghdad airport. The targeted killing of a senior Iranian military officer sent shock waves around the globe and appalled many. International law scholars argued strongly that the strike was unlawful, politicians and diplomats articulated the dangerous impact both locally, regionally and internationally and military officials braced themselves for the inevitable retaliation.  Read more

Global Hawk Down

At 11.35pm (GMT) on 19 June, an Iranian surface to air missile struck and downed a US RQ-4A Global Hawk drone operating over the Straits of Hormuz.  According to the US, the drone, operated by the US Navy (which calls it a Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAV – hence some initial confusion about the exact type of drone) was flying in international airspace, although Iran was equally insistent it was flying in Iranian airspace, with the Iranian Foreign Minister tweeting what he said was the GPS location of the strike. Read more

Three-month snapshot shows expanding use of armed drones

Over the past few years States, international organisations and civil society groups have expressed concern about the increasing proliferation and use of armed drones.  To illustrate what is happening, Drone Wars has compiled details of the use of armed drones in the first three months of 2018.  Due to both the lack of transparency by operators and the difficulty of reporting strikes from the remote locations where they often occur, this survey is undoubtedly incomplete.  In addition the fact that multiple nations are operating armed drones to launch strikes against differing groups in Syria (US, UK, Israel, Turkey and Iran)  and Yemen (US, UAE and Saudi Arabia) makes attribution and accountability for strikes there almost impossible.  Nevertheless this short survey (1 Jan 2018 – 31 March 2018) gives something of an insight into the use of armed drones by multiple operators to launch strikes in multiple countries. Read more