Drone Wars at Ten #3: What’s next? A peek at the future

In this final post to mark our 10th birthday, I want to peer a little into the future, looking at what we are facing in relation to drone warfare in the coming years. Of course predicting the future is always a little foolish – perhaps especially so in the middle of a global pandemic – but four areas of work are already fairly clear: public accountability over the deployment of armed drones; the push to open UK skies to military drones;  monitoring the horizontal and vertical proliferation of military drones and opposing the development of lethal autonomous weapons, aka ‘killer robots’. Read more

XLUUVs, Swarms, and STARTLE: New developments in the UK’s military autonomous systems

Behind the scenes, the UK is developing a range of military autonomous systems. Image: Crown Copyright

In November 2018 Drone Wars UK published ‘Off The Leash’, an in-depth research report outlining how the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was actively supporting research into technology to support the development of armed autonomous drones despite the government’s public claims that it “does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them”.  This article provides an update on developments which have taken place in this field since our report was published, looking both at specific technology projects as well as developments on the UK’s policy position on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). Read more

US Reaper drones test Agile Condor: Another step closer to ‘Killer Robots’

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, manufacturer of the Reaper drone, has recently been awarded a US Air Force contract to demonstrate the  ‘Agile Condor’ artificial intelligence system with the MQ-9 Reaper drone.  According to General Atomics President David R. Alexander,

“The Agile Condor project will further enhance RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] effectiveness by specifically allowing a MQ-9 to surveil a large area of operations, autonomously identify pre-defined targets of interest and transmit their locations.”

This type of capability represents a tangible step further towards the development of autonomous weaponised drones able to operate without human input – flying killer robots, in other words.  From identifying targets without the need for a human decision to destroying those targets is a very small step which could be achieved with existing technology. Read more

Off the Leash: How the UK is developing the technology to build armed autonomous drones

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A new report published by Drone Wars UK reveals that, despite a UK government statement that it “does not possess fully autonomous weapons and has no intention of developing them”, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is actively funding research into technology supporting the development of armed autonomous drones.

Our study, Off the Leash: The Development of Autonomous Military Drones in the UK, identifies the key technologies influencing the development of future armed drones and looks at current initiatives which are under way in the UK to marry developments in autonomy – the ability of a machine to operate with limited, or even no, human control – with military drone technology. The report maps out the agencies, laboratories, and contractors undertaking research into drones and autonomous weapon technology in support of the Ministry of Defence, examines the risks arising from the weaponisation of such technologies, and assesses government policy in this area. Read more

Book review: ‘Army of None: Autonomous weapons and the future of war’ by Paul Scharre

Paul Scharre’s new book on autonomous weapons begins with an account of an incident he experienced while on patrol as a US Army Ranger in Afghanistan in 2004.  A young girl of five or six years old herding a couple of goats approached Scharre’s team while they were taking cover in the mountains.  As she looped around them, frequently glancing towards them, they realised she had a radio and was reporting their position, acting as a spotter for Taliban fighters.

What should the soldiers do?  According to the laws of war, the girl was an enemy combatant whom they were allowed to shoot.  If a person is participating in hostilities, regardless of their age, they are a lawful target for engagement.

Scharre and his squad had no doubt that it would have been quite wrong to kill the little girl, and so they moved away and regrouped in a safer area.  But what would a machine have done in their place?  If it had been programmed to kill enemy combatants lawfully, it would Read more

Book Review: ‘Swarm Troopers’ by David Hambling

‘Swarm Troopers’ has been around for a while, but nevertheless deserves reviewing and remains a worthwhile read and an important contribution to writing on drones and warfare.  It was originally published in December 2015, yet in this fast moving field we are already beginning to see some of the outcomes that author David Hambling predicts taking shape.

“The future will bring new generations of increasingly capable small drones at ever lower costs.  Large numbers of them will be more formidable opponents than the handful of armed Predator / Reaper drones currently in service.”

This is the central thesis of ‘Swarm Troopers’: that in the modern world there is a trend for things to get smaller yet more powerful; that Read more