AI Inches Toward the Battlefield

Article By : George Leopold

The Army tests a reconnaissance drone that could operate autonomously when GPS is jammed.

Autonomy on the battlefield remains one of the gravest concerns among critics of artificial intelligence.

Undeterred, AI developers are promoting pilotless systems for military applications like surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition that can operate independently. What’s more, the developers of such problematic systems are incorporating AI technologies. The combination is attracting heaps of investment capital.

For example, San Diego-based Shield AI recently raised $210 million in equity financing in a single round. The startup claims a valuation north of $1 billion. It will use the new funding to invest in AI capabilities “for the autonomous piloting of military aircraft.”


V-BAT reconnaissance drone. (Source: Shield AI)

Making good on that strategy, Shield AI acquired Texas-based Martin UAV in July, a deal that combines the buyer’s AI and autonomy software stack dubbed Hivemind with the Martin AI’s vertical takeoff and landing pilotless aircraft, ominously named V-BAT .

Military contracting giant Northrop Grumman announced on Sept. 1 it had completed flight testing of V-BAT as part of a U.S. Army program. The test demonstrated navigation and targeting capabilities while operating autonomously without the aid of the Global Positioning System.

The ability to conduct combat operations amid GPS jamming and other interference is a priority for the U.S. military.

V-BAT is designed to carry interchangeable payloads, including electronic warfare, electro-optical/infrared and synthetic aperture radar sensors. The partners plan to add a capability to operate V-BAT without GPS navigation by porting Hivemind’s autonomy capabilities. Those automated reconnaissance sensors could eventually be used by Army brigade combat teams, special forces and Ranger battalions.

The sensor drone can be launched and recovered by two operators. Precisely when and where such an autonomous system would be deployed by the U.S. military remains undetermined. But the recent flight test underscores how AI-based autonomous platforms are steadily making their way to the battlefield, initially in scout roles.

As the shift to autonomy gains momentum, the drone industry lobby argues that current regulations for civilian applications were written for “conventional manual drones.” The advent of “trustworthy autonomy enables new modes of operation and regulatory approaches,” assert members of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems.

The group continues to press the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to allow greater autonomy for pilotless systems used in military, security, public safety and other industrial applications.

This article was originally published on EE Times.

George Leopold has written about science and technology from Washington, D.C., since 1986. Besides EE Times, Leopold’s work has appeared in The New York Times, New Scientist, and other publications. He resides in Reston, Va.


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