DARPA aims to give small unmanned aerial vehicles advanced perception and autonomy to rapidly search buildings or other cluttered environments without teleoperation.
Micro aerial vehicles based on insects and birds are likely to enter military use in the next few years. The US agency DARPA is planning a new generation of small, fast, agile flying vehicles – able to quickly navigate a maze of rooms, stairways and corridors or other obstacle-filled environments without a remote pilot.
Military teams patrolling dangerous urban locations overseas and rescue teams responding to disasters like earthquakes or floods currently rely on remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles to provide a bird’s-eye view of the situation and spot threats that can’t be seen from the ground. But to know what’s going on inside an unstable building or a threatening indoor space often requires physical entry, which can put troops or civilian response teams in danger.
To address these challenges, DARPA has issued a Broad Agency Announcement for its Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) program. This will focus on creating a new class of algorithms, enabling the development of autonomous drones small enough to fit through an open window and fly at speeds up to 20 metres per second (45mph) – while navigating complex indoor spaces, independent of communication with outside operators or sensors and without reliance on GPS waypoints.
“Birds of prey and flying insects exhibit the kinds of capabilities we want for small UAVs,” says Mark Micire, program manager. “Goshawks, for example, can fly very fast through a dense forest without smacking into a tree. Many insects, too, can dart and hover with incredible speed and precision. The goal of the FLA program is to explore non-traditional perception and autonomy methods that would give small UAVs the capacity to perform in a similar way, including an ability to easily navigate tight spaces at high speed and quickly recognise if it had already been in a room before.”
If successful, the algorithms developed in the program could enhance unmanned system capabilities by reducing the amount of processing power, communications, and human intervention needed for low-level tasks, such as navigation around obstacles in a cluttered environment. The initial focus is on UAVs, but advances made through the FLA program could potentially be applied to ground, marine and underwater systems, which could be especially useful in GPS-degraded or denied environments.
“Urban and disaster relief operations would be obvious key beneficiaries, but applications for this technology could extend to a wide variety of missions using small and large unmanned systems linked together with manned platforms as a system of systems,” says Stefanie Tompkins, director of DARPA’s Defence Sciences Office. “By enabling unmanned systems to learn ‘muscle memory’ and perception for basic tasks like avoiding obstacles, it would relieve overload and stress on human operators so they can focus on supervising the systems and executing the larger mission.”
After several years of research and testing, the U.S. Navy has introduced a new laser gun designed to protect ships without using ammunition.
Another entry on our timeline is now a reality as the U.S. Navy has authorised the first operational use of a laser weapon. This new hi-tech system – known as the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) – is designed to serve as a form of defence against drones and other small flying vehicles or small-boat enemies including suicide attackers. It is highly accurate, able to hit objects moving at up to 300 mph (480 km/h).
The LaWS fires a solid-state infrared beam with two modes: high output to destroy a target, and low output for optical "dazzling", warning shots or to cripple a potential attacker. Among the advantages of this device versus projectile weapons is the low cost per shot, as each firing of the weapon requires only minimal cost for generating the energetic pulse; by contrast ordnance for projectile weapons must be designed, manufactured, handled, transported and maintained and requires storage space. It also works flawlessly in adverse weather conditions of high winds, heat and humidity.
Following years of testing prototypes, the LaWS was deployed on the U.S.S. Ponce located in the Persian Gulf in August 2014. This week, the U.S. Navy released video footage of the first operational demonstrations, which took place from September to November 2014. It has now been approved for operational use and is expected to be fitted on many more ships in the coming years. A more powerful version in the future will be capable of tracking and destroying anti-ship missiles.
"Laser weapons are powerful, affordable and will play a vital role in the future of naval combat operations," says Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder in a press release. "We ran this particular weapon, a prototype, through some extremely tough paces, and it locked on and destroyed the targets we designated with near-instantaneous lethality."
“At less than a dollar per shot, there's no question about the value LaWS provides. With affordability a serious concern for our defence budgets, this will more effectively manage resources.”
This week, Lockheed Martin announced plans for a small-scale fusion power plant to be developed in as little as 10 years. A number of experts have expressed doubts over its viability.
If it ever became a reality, fusion power would be truly world-altering – a clean, safe and essentially limitless supply of energy allowing humanity's continued survival for centuries and millennia to come. The international project known as ITER is planned for operation in 2022 and its eventual successor may emerge in the 2040s. Widespread deployment of fusion is not expected until 2070.
U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin hopes to accelerate progress in this area, by developing what it calls a compact fusion reactor (CFR). This would be around 10 times smaller than conventional tokamak designs, small enough to fit on the back of a truck and generating 100 megawatts (MW) of power. The company intends to build a prototype within five years – according to its press release – with commercial introduction five years after that. It has several patents pending for the work and is looking for partners in academia, industry and among government laboratories.
As illustrated above, the main improvement over ITER would be the use of a superconducting torus to create a differently shaped magnetic field, able to contain plasma far better than previous configurations. These small reactors could be fitted in U.S. Navy warships and submarines while eliminating the need for other fuel types. They could power small cities of up to 100,000 people, allow planes to fly with unlimited range, or even be used in spacecraft to cut journey times to Mars from six months to a single month. Using a CFR, the cost of desalinated water could fall by 60 percent.
If this sounds too good to be true, it may well be. Although Lockheed has been successful in its magnetised ion confinement experiments, a number of significant challenges remain for a working prototype with plasma confinement – let alone a commercialised version.
"I think it's very overplayed," University of California nuclear engineering professor Dr. Edward Morse told The Register. "They are being very cagey about divulging details."
"Getting net energy from fusion is such a goddamn difficult undertaking," said University of Texas physicist Dr. Swadesh M. Mahajan, in an interview with Mother Jones. "We know of no materials that would be able to handle anywhere near that amount of heat."
"The nuclear engineering clearly fails to be cost effective," Tom Jarboe told Business Insider in an email.
For these reasons, it is perhaps best to wait for more news and developments before adding the CFR to our timeline. We will, of course, keep you updated on Lockheed's progress as it emerges. You can also discuss this project on our forum.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has announced a technological breakthrough that allows unmanned surface vehicles (USV) to not only protect Navy ships, but also, for the first time, autonomously “swarm” offensively on hostile vessels.
First-of-its-kind technology – demonstrated on the James River in Virginia – allows unmanned, self-guided vessels to overwhelm an adversary. This is achieved using a combination of sensors and software called CARACaS (Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing). The hardware is small and light enough to be portable and can be installed on almost any boat. It is also inexpensive, at just $2000 for each kit.
These automated patrols could leave warships they're protecting and swarm around potential threats on the water. This technology could be utilised by the U.S. Navy within a year, defence officials say, adding it could help stop attacks like the deadly 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
“Our Sailors and Marines can’t fight tomorrow’s battles using yesterday’s technology,” said Chief of Naval Research, Matthew Klunder. “This kind of breakthrough is the result of the Navy’s long-term support for innovative research in science and technology.”
Without a human physically needing to be at the controls, the boats can operate in sync with other unmanned vessels – choosing their own routes; swarming to interdict enemy vessels; and escorting/protecting naval assets.
“This networking unmanned platforms demonstration was a cost-effective way to integrate many small, cheap, and autonomous capabilities that can significantly improve our warfighting advantage,” said Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations.
“This multiplies combat power by allowing CARACaS-enabled boats to do some of the dangerous work,” said Dr. Robert Brizzolara, program manager at the ONR. “It will remove our Sailors and Marines from many dangerous situations; for instance when they need to approach hostile or suspicious vessels. If an adversary were to fire on the USVs, no humans would be at risk.”
In the tests, as many as 13 Navy boats were operating together. First they escorted a high-value Navy ship, and then, when a simulated enemy vessel was detected, the boats sped into action, swarming around the threat. This demonstration comes near the anniversary of the USS Cole bombing off the coast of Yemen. In that October 2000 terrorist attack, a small boat laden with explosives was able to get near a guided-missile destroyer and detonate, killing 17 Sailors and injuring 39 others.
Autonomous unmanned surface vehicles could play a vital role in protecting people, ports and commerce. In the future, the capability could be scaled up to include even greater numbers of USVs – and even to other platforms such as drones, helicopters and jet fighters.
"This is something that you might find not only just on our naval vessels. We could certainly see this utilised to protect merchant vessels, to protect ports and harbours; used also to protect offshore oil rigs," Klunder said.
The U.S. military is researching possible designs for a new generation of stealthier, faster, more mobile tanks.
For the past 100 years of mechanised warfare, protection for ground-based armoured fighting vehicles and their occupants has boiled down almost exclusively to a simple equation: more armour equals more protection. Weapons’ ability to penetrate armour, however, has advanced faster than armour’s ability to withstand penetration. As a result, achieving even incremental improvements in crew survivability has required significant increases in vehicle mass and cost.
The trend of increasingly heavy, less mobile and more expensive combat platforms has limited Soldiers’ and Marines’ ability to rapidly deploy and manoeuvre in theatre and accomplish missions in varied and evolving threat environments. Moreover, larger vehicles are limited to roads, as well as requiring more logistical support and are more expensive to design, develop, field and replace. The U.S. military has now reached a point where – considering tactical mobility, strategic mobility, survivability and cost – innovative and disruptive solutions are necessary for a new generation of armoured fighting vehicles.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has created the Ground X-Vehicle Technology (GXV-T) program to overcome these challenges. GXV-T seeks to investigate revolutionary ground-vehicle technologies that would simultaneously improve the mobility and survivability of vehicles through means other than adding more armour – i.e. avoiding detection, engagement and hits by adversaries. This improved stealth and mobility would enable future U.S. ground forces to more efficiently and cost-effectively tackle the varied and unpredictable combat situations of the 21st century.
“GXV-T’s goal is not just to improve or replace one particular vehicle – it’s about breaking the ‘more armour’ paradigm and revolutionising protection for all armoured fighting vehicles,” says Kevin Massey, DARPA program manager. “Inspired by how X-plane programs have improved aircraft capabilities over the past 60 years, we plan to pursue groundbreaking fundamental research and development to help make future armoured fighting vehicles significantly more mobile, effective, safe and affordable.”
Technical goals include the following improvements relative to today’s armoured fighting vehicles:
Reduce vehicle size and weight by 50 percent
Reduce onboard crew needed to operate vehicle by 50 percent
Increase vehicle speed by 100 percent
Access 95 percent of terrain
Reduce signatures that enable adversaries to detect and engage vehicles
DARPA says these four technical areas are examples of where advanced technologies could be developed that would meet the program’s objectives:
Radically enhanced mobility – ability to traverse diverse off-road terrain, including slopes and various elevations; advanced suspensions and novel track/wheel configurations; extreme speed; rapid omnidirectional movement changes in three dimensions
Survivability through agility – autonomously avoid incoming threats without harming occupants through technologies such as agile motion (dodging) and active repositioning of armour
Crew augmentation – improved physical and electronically assisted situational awareness for crew and passengers; semi-autonomous driver assistance and automation of key crew functions, similar to capabilities found in modern commercial airplane cockpits
Signature management – reduction of detectable signatures, including visible, infrared (IR), acoustic and electromagnetic (EM)
DARPA aims to develop GXV-T technologies over a period of 24 months, from 2015 to 2017.
US military research agency DARPA intends to cut the average time to develop new advanced materials from 10 years to less than three.
Military platforms – such as ships, aircraft and ground vehicles – rely on advanced materials to make them lighter, stronger and more resistant to stress, heat and other harsh environmental conditions. Currently, the process for developing new materials to field in platforms frequently takes over a decade. These lengthy schedules often mean that developers of new platforms are forced to rely on decades-old, mature materials, because other potentially more advanced materials are still being tested and aren’t ready to be implemented into platform designs.
To address this problem, US military research agency DARPA has initiated a new program called Materials Development for Platforms (MDP). This aims to develop a methodology and toolset to compress the applied material development process by at least 75 percent: from an average of 10 years or more, to just two and a half years.
To achieve this goal, a cross-disciplinary model will incorporate materials science and engineering, Integrated Computational Materials Engineering (ICME) principles, and platform development disciplines of engineering, design, analysis and manufacturing. DARPA will focus on rapid development of materials with specific platform capabilities and intended missions in view – rather than supporting long-term, generalised materials development followed by assessments of potential applications for the resulting materials.
“In this program, we want to move from the current mindset of sporadic ‘pushes’ in materials technology development to a mindset that ‘pulls’ materials technology forward driven by platform design intent and mission need,” says Mick Maher, DARPA program manager. “Ideally, we could envision materials development happening on timescales more in line with modern commercial automobile development.”
A hypersonic aircraft
As a test case, the program intends to focus its initial efforts on a hypersonic platform design – a bold and pressing challenge, since hypersonic vehicles operate under extreme conditions that push state-of-the-art materials to their thermal, chemical and structural limits. Specifically, the first MDP materials development effort would be applied to the design of an outer aerodynamic shell for a hypersonic vehicle that would glide through the atmosphere. Hypersonic air vehicles travel at more than five times the speed of sound, resulting in shell temperatures of several thousand degrees – hot enough to melt steel. The goal is to prove the MDP concept by developing, manufacturing and independently testing various new material structural elements of an outer shell within two and a half years.
“A key to the program’s success will be integrating expertise from a wide range of relevant technical disciplines,” Maher said. “We want to reach out to potential performers in all of the relevant scientific and engineering communities – and from both large companies and small businesses – so they can team together to create the most effective solutions possible.”
Fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” would jeopardise basic human rights, whether used in wartime or for law enforcement, Human Rights Watch said in a report released yesterday, on the eve of the first multilateral meeting on the subject at the United Nations.
The 26-page report, “Shaking the Foundations: The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots,” is the first report to assess in detail the risks posed by these weapons during law enforcement operations – expanding the debate beyond the battlefield. Human Rights Watch found that fully autonomous weapons threaten rights and principles under international law as fundamental as the right to life, the right to a remedy, and the principle of dignity.
“In policing, as well as war, human judgment is critically important to any decision to use a lethal weapon,” said Steve Goose, arms division director. “Governments need to say no to fully autonomous weapons for any purpose and to preemptively ban them now, before it is too late.”
International debate over fully autonomous weapons has previously focused on their potential role in armed conflict and questions over whether they would comply with international humanitarian law, also called the laws of war. Human Rights Watch, in this new report, examines the potential impact of fully autonomous weapons under human rights law, which applies during peacetime as well as armed conflict.
Nations must adopt a preemptive international ban on these weapons, which could identify and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention, Human Rights Watch said. Countries are pursuing ever-greater autonomy in weapons, and precursors already exist.
The release of the report, co-published with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, coincides with the first ever multilateral meeting on the weapons. Many of the 117 countries that joined the Convention on Conventional Weapons will attend the meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the United Nations in Geneva this week. Members of the convention agreed at their annual meeting in November 2013 to begin work on the issue in 2014.
Human Rights Watch believes the agreement to work on these weapons in the Convention on Conventional Weapons forum could eventually lead to new international law prohibiting fully autonomous weapons. The convention preemptively banned blinding lasers in 1995.
Human Rights Watch is a founding member and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. This coalition of 51 nongovernmental organisations in two dozen countries calls for a preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.
Human Rights Watch issued its first report on the subject, “Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots,” back in November 2012. In April 2013, Christof Heyns – UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions – issued a report citing a range of objections to the weapons, and called for all nations to adopt national moratoria and begin international discussions about how to address them.
Fully autonomous weapons could be prone to killing people unlawfully because these weapons could not be programmed to handle every situation, Human Rights Watch found. According to robot experts, there is little prospect that these weapons would possess human qualities, such as judgment, that facilitate compliance with the right to life in unforeseen situations.
Fully autonomous weapons would also undermine human dignity, Human Rights Watch said. These inanimate machines could not understand or respect the value of life, yet they would have the power to determine when to take it away.
Serious doubts exist about whether there could be meaningful accountability for the actions of a fully autonomous weapon. There would be legal and practical obstacles to holding anyone – a superior officer, programmer, or manufacturer – responsible for a robot’s actions. Both criminal and civil law are ill suited to the task, Human Rights Watch found.
“The accountability gap would weaken deterrence for future violations,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior researcher in the arms division at Human Rights Watch and lecturer at the Harvard clinic as well as author of the report. “It would be very difficult for families to obtain retribution or remedy for the unlawful killing of a relative by such a machine.”
The human rights impacts of killer robots compound a host of other legal, ethical, and scientific concerns – including the potential for an arms race, prospect of proliferation, and questions about their ability to protect civilians adequately on the battlefield or the street, Human Rights Watch found.