Police Drones and Autonomy

The ‘domestication’ of drone technology is developing at an alarming pace, and is only set to increase with FAA regulations coming into force, opening the skies for drones everywhere. The ‘Qube’ drone represents the evolution of drones for policing civilian populations.

At the San Diego convention of the International Association of Police Chiefs,  AeroVironment, maker of the suicide ‘Switchblade’ drone, unveiled its first drone directed solely at police departments.

Qube_in action.jpg

The Future of Drone Warfare

For more on the future of drone warfare, check out the following link, which will direct you to up-to-date posts, including: 

Bringing Drones Home

One of the biggest trends in recent years has been the adoption of drone technology for law enforcement, particularly within the U.S. where Predator drones are used by Customs and Border Patrol along the borders with Mexico and Canada.

At the end of 2011, U.S. police in North Dakota made their first arrest with the aid of a Predator drone. One inevitable trend will also be the uptake of drones by criminals and domestic terrorists. In September, 2011, the FBI arrested a man suspected of using an armed drone to attack the U.S. Capitol building and other targets.

The passage of recent FAA legislation has further opened up America’s skies to drones. A map of domestic drone sites in the U.S. can be found here: it is created from Federal Aviation Association (FAA) Certificate of Authorizations (COAs). The individuals and institutions applying for licenses include journalists, police forces, universities, and the armed forces. As of May 2012, there were over 60 unique separate sites, 300 active COAs, and between 700 and 750 COAs since the program began in 2006.

The FAA estimates that there could be some 30,000 drones in U.S. skies by 2020.

A massive “51st state” for drones is being planned in the south-east tip of Colorado. Under the military’s plan, 7 million acres of land over Colorado and New Mexico would be taken from ranchers and used for Special Forces testing and training of UAVs.


In 2010 the U.S. Army released the “US Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2010-2035”. In it, the report describes the “swarming” tactic of micro-drones called “Nanos”:

“By 2025, Nanos will collaborate with one another to create swarms of Nanos that can cover large outdoor and indoor areas. The swarms will have a level of autonomy and self-awareness that will allow them to shift formations in order to maximize coverage and cover down on dead spots. Nanos will possess the ability to fly, crawl, adjust their positions, and navigate increasingly confined spaces”

But how exactly did we get to this science-fiction present?

The concept of mechanical beings stretches throughout history, from Greek and Egyptian mythology to Leonardo Da Vinci’s fantastical ‘helicopter’. But it was only in the 20th century that technology began to catch up with imagination. So what changed? Commercially, the first industrial robot was the ‘T3’, created in 1973 by General Motors for the mass production of automobiles. And by 2010, commercial robots had an intimate presence in homes throughout the world. For example, the ‘Roomba’ is a small disc-shaped robot made by the American company iRobot, and has annual sales of over 2.5 million. Costing a few hundred dollars, it is an autonomous robot designed to vacuum homes without any user intervention. Indeed, by 2017, the market for personal robotics is set to earn $17 billion (Baburajan, 2010).

Photo: Da Vinci’s ‘helicopter’

The shift to unmanned military robots and technologies in the U.S. was partly driven by Senator John Warner, the former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The reasons he gave for their development were both obvious—to reduce U.S. casualties—and not so obvious: to galvanize the recruitment of young people by using ‘cool’ technology (Singer, 2009, 58). Specifically, in Section 220 of the Floyd D. Spence National Defense Act for Fiscal Year 2001 (Public Law 106-398), Congress mandated to the Department of Defense that: (a) by 2010, one third of the aircraft used in combat should be unmanned; (b) by 2015 one third of ground vehicles should be unmanned (Department of Defense, 2009b, page 5).

To accommodate this mandate, the Department of Defense requested $6 billion for the development of unmanned aerial systems (USGAO, 2010).  Growth in demand for new military technology has become a windfall for private-sector defense contractors. At iRobot, in the same labs responsible for giving the world cleaner carpets, the PackBot was born, one of the company’s biggest successes – and responsible for driving the $298 million revenue it made in 2009. The PackBot is a flat and rugged device with an extendable and manipulable ‘arm’ that has a camera attached to it. The robot is stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq and is used by the military for bomb disposal, checkpoints, and ‘route clearance’. Another big robot contractor is Foster-Miller, which was bought by QinetiQ for $163 million in 2004. Foster-Miller creates the popular TALON combat robots, which can be mounted with anything from machine guns to grenade launchers.

As well as ground-based robots such as the PackBot and TALON, unmanned aerial vehicles are heavily deployed throughout the Middle-East. The military currently has close to 7,000 unmanned aircraft, with 39 combat-air patrols flying over Iraq and Afghanistan constantly, a number expected to rise to 65 a day by 2013. The most numerous of these drones is the ‘Raven’ (made by AeroVironment), a three-foot long, hand-launched miniature plane. The Army has close to 1,000 of these ‘flying cameras’ that are able to operate for distances of up to 10km (Shachtman, 2005). If the Raven is favored by the U.S. Army, then the Predator is the Air Force’s cause célèbre. Having made their debut in the Balkans, the Air Force operates 140 of these 27 foot, 1,130 pound drones, which are piloted thousands of miles away in the Western United States. The Air Force operates three Predator squadrons and three Air National Guard predator squadrons, with the combined fleet reaching 170,000 flight hours in July 2006 (Department of Defense, 2009, 63).

Other robots in deployment and development seem to have taken inspiration from science-fiction. The ‘Wasp’ is a minute, 11 inch drone used for front-line reconnaissance; the prototype ‘Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot’ (BEAR) is an agile (and human-looking) ‘medical bot’ that will lift and carry a casualty out of harm’s way; out on the ocean, unmanned ships such as the SEAFOX have already been delivered to the Navy, accompanied by a variety of submarine drones (not forgetting the mine-sniffing RoboLobsters). And finally, the still classified X-41 is an unmanned plane for use in outer-space. Such proliferation of military robotics means the Army alone will train more than 2,100 UAS operators by 2012, an 800 percent increase over 2003 (U.S. Army, 2010, page 1). It has also led to the start-up of groups like the ‘International Committee for Robot Arms Control’, a ‘website for those who are concerned about the pressing dangers that military robots pose to peace and international security and to civilians in war’ (http://www.icrac.co.cc/).

The future of drone technology points to increasingly autonomous technologies that can function without constant pilot control. This will provide the drone operator the ability to control multiple, networked drones simultaneously: the so-called “swarming” ability.

The U.S. military and Department of Defense regularly produces ‘roadmaps’ that provide glimpses into the brains behind the proliferation of unmanned systems. In this section, I flag some of the key points contained in these documents. The reason for doing so is to draw attention to the exponential development of U.S. robotics – a development that deserves philosophical attention. By demonstrating their increased autonomy, I hope to shift attention to the specifically political nature of these objects. The selected roadmaps are as follows: Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap, 2005-2030 (Department of Defense, 2005), Unmanned Systems Roadmap, 2007-2032 (Department of Defense, 2007), United States Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047 (U.S. Air Force, 2009), Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, 2009-2034 (Department of Defense, 2009), and finally U.S. Army roadmap for Unmanned Aircraft Systems 2010-2035 (U.S. Army, 2010).

The shared aims of these documents is to identify the opportunities that unmanned technologies offer, as well as the organizational changes needed to transition towards a hybrid military of human and robots. In nearly all cases, the adoption of unmanned technologies is justified by “The ability to operate in high-threat environments without putting warfighters at risk is not only safer but potentially more effective than the use of current manned systems” (Department of Defense, 2007, page I). The result has been

“…unmanned systems transformed from being primarily remote-operated, single-mission platforms into increasingly autonomous, multi-mission systems. The fielding of increasingly sophisticated reconnaissance, targeting, and weapons delivery technology has not only allowed unmanned systems to participate in shortening the “sensor to shooter” kill chain, but it has also allowed them to complete the chain by delivering precision weapons on target” (Department of Defense, 2009, page XIII).

Unmanned systems are useful because they do the ‘dirty and dangerous’ jobs, as well carry out surveillance from the skies and seas. But why is there the drive towards autonomy? First, machines can react faster and more accurately than human soldiers. As the U.S. Air Force puts it: “Future UAS able to perceive the situation and act independently with limited or little human input will greatly shorten decision time. This Perceive-Act line is critical to countering growing adversary UAS threats that seek automation capabilities” (U.S. Air Force, 2009, page 16). Second, it saves the military money if a single operator can oversee multiple autonomous drones at once, rather than a more costly 1:1 ratio. In the words of the Department of Defense (2009, page 32), autonomy is able to “…decrease the operator workload with the goal of a single operator controlling multiple USVs [unmanned surface vehicle], and the need to conduct missions over the horizon which may be beyond the range of the communications systems”. And finally, autonomy allows drones to continue working if they lose communication with their pilot, thus reducing their ‘vulnerability’ to environmental radio interference.

The Department of Defense (2009) lists a number of autonomous scenarios for the near and far future, including autonomous patient extracting from the battlefield, automated aircraft refueling, autonomous targeting, and even autonomous undersea mine-laying. These developments point to a modular and decentralized military war machine, where decisions are increasingly made by sophisticated robots. And this is where the science-fiction overture really starts hitting its high notes. The military envisions drones being able to ‘swarm’ together, fully cooperate, and even heal for themselves. Take the following quotes, all of which celebrate an autonomous future of interacting robots:

“Future UA will evolve from being robots operated at a distance to independent robots, able to self-actualize to perform a given task” (Department of Defense, 2005, page 52).

“As autonomy and automation merge, UAS will be able to swarm (one pilot directing the actions of many multi-mission aircraft) creating a focused, relentless, and scaled attack” (U.S. Air Force, 2009, page 16).

“The final portfolio step leverages a fully autonomous capability, swarming, and Hypersonic technology to put the enemy off balance by being able to almost instantaneously create effects throughout the battlespace. Technologies to perform auto air refueling, automated maintenance, automatic target engagement, hypersonic flight, and swarming would drive changes across the DOTMLPF-P spectrum. The end result would be a revolution in the roles of humans in air warfare” (U.S. Air Force, 2009, page 50).

This transition to autonomy relies on improving the linkages between human and machine, with a movement towards a techno-biological symbiosis:

“Autonomy and robustness are improved by networking manned and unmanned systems into a more tightly coupled combat system that will improve our knowledge of the battlespace, enhance our targeting speed and accuracy, increase survivability, and allow greater mission flexibility” (Department of Defense, 2007, page 34).

“Eventually, UA pilots will be wired so that the electrical signals they send to their muscles will translate into instantaneous control inputs to the UA.  To paraphrase a popular saying, the future UA pilot will transition from seeing the plane to being the plane” (Department of Defense, 2005, page 52).

But this symbiosis also requires that robots become ever-more independent and intelligent:

“Future UA will evolve from being robots operated at a distance to independent robots, able to self-actualize to perform a given task … To achieve that level, machine processing will have to match that of the human brain in speed, memory, and quality of algorithms, or thinking patterns”  (Department of Defense, 2005, page 52).

This kind of intelligence will allow robots to ‘target’ ever more accurately, including on-the-fly facial recognition:

“Technological advances in artificial intelligence will enable UAS to make and execute complex decisions required in this phase of autonomy, assuming legal and policy decisions authorize these advances … As the number of types of targets and environmental factors increase, the complexity and time to complete the targeting increases … Autonomous targeting systems, to include facial recognition, must be capable of learning and exercising a spectrum of missions useful to the Joint Warfighter” (U.S. Army, 2010, page 65).

And finally, this targeting may lead to the unprecedented scenario in which it is robots making the decision to kill autonomously:

“As confidence in system reliability, function, and targeting algorithms grows, more autonomous operations with weapons may be considered” (Department of Defense, 2007, page 54).

While the 2011 U.K. Ministry of Defence’s “The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems” takes a more cautious approach to autonomy and swarming, it notes that “swarms of unmanned aircraft may be used to quickly provide unprecedented amounts of surveillance data on a particular problem, to provide wide-area internet or telecoms access, or to overwhelm even modern air defence systems”.

Talking about the moral and ethical issues of automated systems, the report states:

“To a robotic system, a school bus and a tank are the same – merely algorithms in a programme – and the engagement of a target is a singular action; the robot has no sense of ends, ways and means, no need to know why it is engaging a target.  There is no recourse to human judgement in an engagement, no sense of a higher purpose on which to make decisions, and no ability to imagine (and therefore take responsibility for) repercussions of action taken.  This raises a number of questions that will need to be addressed before fully autonomous armed systems are fielded”


“The other side of the autonomy argument is more positive. Robots cannot be emotive, cannot hate.  A target is a series of ones and zeros, and once the decision is made, by whatever means, that the target is legitimate, then prosecution of that target is made mechanically.  The robot does not care that the target is human or inanimate, terrorist or freedom fighter, savage or barbarian”.

The future, it seems, is still to be decided.

Further reading

Department of Defense, 2005, Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005-2030

Department of Defense, 2007, Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2032

Department of Defense, 2009, FY2009–2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap

United States Government Accountability Office (USGAO), 2010, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Comprehensive Planning and a Results-Oriented Training Strategy Are Needed to Support Growing Inventories” http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10331.pdf 

United States Army, 2005, U.S. Army roadmap for Unmanned Aircraft Systems 2010-2035

United States Air Force, 2005, Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan, 2009-2047

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