At DoD, Building Autonomy into the World of War

By Cheryl Pellerin
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

At the Defense One Tech Summit in Washington last week, the topic was future warfare technology. Some of DoD’s top experts were there, including Strategic Capabilities Office Director Dr. William Roper.

They discussed lots of technologies, but one of the most interesting was autonomy.

Autonomy — according to the 2012 Role of Autonomy in DoD Systems by the Defense Science Board — is a capability or a set of capabilities that enables the action of a system to be automatic or, within programmed boundaries, self-governing.

It’s Not Automatic; You Have to Push the Button

But, the experts say, all autonomous systems are supervised by human operators at some level, and autonomous systems’ software has designed-in limits on actions and decisions delegated to the computer. And, they added, unmanned systems are having a significant impact on warfare worldwide.

Examples of autonomous systems include drones, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s robot warship Sea Hunter and other robots of all kinds, to name just a few.

Sea Hunter, a prototype of a new class of unmanned oceangoing vessel, conducts on-water tests in Portland, Ore., recently. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency held a christening ceremony for the ship April 7, 2016, in Portland. DoD photo

Sea Hunter, a prototype of a new class of unmanned oceangoing vessel, conducts on-water tests in Portland, Ore., recently. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency held a christening ceremony for the ship April 7, 2016, in Portland. DoD photo

During the tech summit, Roper, whose SCO office takes systems that do one thing and modify them to do another thing to create strategic surprise for U.S. adversaries, discussed a range of topics in autonomy, including challenges.

“The biggest challenge for national security in the 21st century, as opposed to the 20th century, is that things that are most likely to affect the future the most will be developed outside the Defense Department,” he said.

Historically, the nation has developed technologies with worldwide impacts: stealth technology, submarines, the internet and others, Roper added.

Today, technologies such as ubiquitous networking of all systems, big data analytics and machine learning all are helping users not only to find needles in haystacks, but also to begin to understand whole haystacks, the Rhodes scholar said, noting that while DoD isn’t driving many of these investments, the department still has opportunities.

“The challenge that comes with the opportunity is that those in the department will have to become fast adapters, especially in the near-term sphere where I work,” Roger said. “We’re going to have to be fast adapters of things that are developed without a single DoD requirement and its initial thought process.”

Team Kaist’s robot DRC-Hubo uses a tool to cut a hole in a wall during the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals, June 5-6, 2015, in Pomona, Calif. Team Kaist won the top prize at the competition. DARPA photo

Team Kaist’s robot DRC-Hubo uses a tool to cut a hole in a wall during the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals, June 5-6, 2015, in Pomona, Calif. Team Kaist won the top prize at the competition. DARPA photo

The department, he added, will have to rethink the way it does requirements, developments and prototyping.

“Our processes are built around developing systems organically by the department, and we don’t have a very good process for determining what is good enough — good enough for the next step, for the next move in the chess game. So we’re going to have to be able to do that or we’re going to find ourselves developing things a generation behind where the corporate world is,” Roper said.

He also wants to see the department start anticipating the waves better, paddling ahead of where it sees industry going. “And just like a surfer, being able to ride those waves as long as they make sense to us,” he said.

Such commercial technologies are available to anyone who has the resources to invest in them. For the department and for other militaries, that commercial tech will have to be adapted for military use, Roper added.

Air Force Maj. Scott Gregg, Black Dart project officer, speaks to the media in front of a MQ-9 unmanned aircraft system at Naval Base Ventura County and Sea Range, Point Mugu, Calif., July 31, 2015. The drone, Gregg said, is in the largest categories of UASs, flies at more than 18,000 feet in altitude and weighs more than 1,300 pounds. It was being used as part of the two-week Black Dart counter-UAS demonstration to assess and improve technologies, tactics and techniques used by DoD and its partners. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando

Air Force Maj. Scott Gregg, Black Dart project officer, speaks to the media in front of a MQ-9 unmanned aircraft system at Naval Base Ventura County and Sea Range, Point Mugu, Calif., July 31, 2015. The drone, Gregg said, is in the largest categories of UASs, flies at more than 18,000 feet in altitude and weighs more than 1,300 pounds. It was being used as part of the two-week Black Dart counter-UAS demonstration to assess and improve technologies, tactics and techniques used by DoD and its partners. DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando

“There’s no reason that any country can’t do it as well as we can,” he said, “but I think there’s one significant advantage we have in the immediate and the foreseeable future that other countries don’t have, and that’s extremely proficient and experienced operators.”

He added, “A lot of times we talk tech in the department and we don’t emphasize that our ability to adapt is based upon human proficiency. That’s a strategic advantage for us, and right now I’d put our operators up hands down against anyone else in the world. So I think if it’s properly invested in, we can win this rapid adaptation because of that human backbone it’s going to be built on.”

Roper said one aspect of autonomy that gets the least amount of attention is the kind that’s behind the scenes, under the hood.

“I think [that’s] likely to be one of the most game-changing things that’s going to happen, not just to the world, but to national security. It’s this confluence of big data, analytics and deep learning,” he said.

What has a lot of promise for the nation is the ability to take massive amounts of data and not just process it but understand it, getting to a higher-level understanding of what it means, what the connections are and what pattern of life is behind the information, Roper said.

DARPA’s Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment, or CODE, program seeks to help the U.S. military’s unmanned aircraft systems conduct dynamic, long-distance engagements of highly mobile ground and maritime targets in denied or contested electromagnetic airspace, all while reducing required communication bandwidth and cognitive burden on human supervisors. In a step toward that goal, DARPA recently awarded Phase 2 system integration contracts for CODE to Lockheed Martin Corp. in Orlando, Fla., and the Raytheon Co. in Tucson, Ariz. Six companies -- all of which had Phase 1 contracts with DARPA to develop supporting CODE technologies -- will collaborate with the two prime contractors:

DARPA’s Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment, or CODE, program seeks to help the U.S. military’s unmanned aircraft systems conduct dynamic, long-distance engagements of highly mobile ground and maritime targets in denied or contested electromagnetic airspace, all while reducing required communication bandwidth and cognitive burden on human supervisors. In a step toward that goal, DARPA recently awarded Phase 2 system integration contracts for CODE to Lockheed Martin Corp. in Orlando, Fla., and the Raytheon Co. in Tucson, Ariz. Six companies — all of which had Phase 1 contracts with DARPA to develop supporting CODE technologies — will collaborate with the two prime contractors:

“The thing that’s scary about it, and it’s going to be challenging for us, is that there’s no reason the processing time and the reaction time from this will not continually speed up beyond human ability to interface with it,” Roper added.

“It may not be a path that the U.S. wants to go down,” he continued, “but if other countries have the option to pull in massive amounts of data, process it, and, say, interface it with automatic cyber tools or other things that take a response, and that’s happening at a sub-second level, then there’s going to be a whole level of conflict in warfare that will take place before people even understand what’s happening.”

That hasn’t happened before, he said, “but it’s something that needs to have more highlight, needs to have more investment, and we need to get ready for it. It’s something that we’ve put quite a bit of emphasis on in our office over this year, trying to get practical with today’s data-driven technology.”

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