Los Angeles Times
The Navy’s new drone being tested near Chesapeake Bay stretches the boundaries of technology: It’s designed to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, one of aviation’s most difficult maneuvers.
What’s even more remarkable is that it will do that not just without a pilot in the cockpit, but without a pilot at all.
The X-47B marks a paradigm shift in warfare, one that likely is to have far-reaching consequences. With the drone’s ability to be flown autonomously by onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and destruction can be dealt by machines operating semi-independently.
Although humans would program an autonomous drone’s flight plan and could override its decisions, the prospect of heavily armed aircraft screaming through the skies without direct human control is unnerving to many.
“Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability,” said Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert. “This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military’s acquisition process? The manufacturer — for faulty equipment?”
Sharkey and others believe that autonomous, armed robots should force the kind of dialogue that followed the introduction of mustard gas in World War I and the development of atomic weapons in World War II. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the group tasked by the Geneva Conventions to protect victims in armed conflict, already is examining the issue.
“The deployment of such systems would reflect ... a major qualitative change in the conduct of hostilities,” committee President Jakob Kellenberger said at a recent conference. “The capacity to discriminate, as required by [international humanitarian law], will depend entirely on the quality and variety of sensors and programming employed within the system.”
Weapons specialists in the military and Congress acknowledge that policymakers must deal with these ethical questions long before these lethal autonomous drones go into active service, which may be a decade or more away.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said policy probably will first be discussed with the bipartisan drone caucus that he co-chairs with Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif. Officially known as the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, the panel was formed in 2009 to inform members of Congress on the far-reaching applications of drone technology.
“It’s a different world from just a few years ago. We’ve entered the realm of science fiction in a lot of ways,” Cuellar said. “New rules have to be developed as new technology comes about, and this is a big step forward.”
Aerial drones now piloted remotely have become a central weapon for the CIA and U.S. military in their campaign against terrorists in the Middle East. The Pentagon has gone from an inventory of a handful of drones before Sept. 11, 2001, to about 7,500 drones, about one-third of all military aircraft.
Despite looming military spending cuts, expenditures on drones are expected to take less of a hit, if any, because they are cheaper to build and operate than piloted aircraft.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.