For many years now, robots have been able to follow a specific, predetermined course to an objective, shifting directions as needed and even avoiding obstacles should they emerge, however, the U.S. Army is now taking massive new steps when it comes to autonomous navigation in ways that are expected to change the paradigm for modern warfare
“Right now we know we can execute waypoint navigation, we can have teleoperation, and we can do obstacle avoidance . . . and we're really making huge strides on additional autonomous behaviors in the grip they do. We're making autonomous advances, both for on-road and off-road operations,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, the director of the Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team for Army Futures Command, told the National Interest.
Coffman said he could not elaborate on many of the specifics related to advanced degrees of autonomy, but he did point out a few distinct and significant advantages newer applications of robotic autonomy will bring to the force. For example, perhaps an autonomous vehicle could benefit from force-wide, cross-domain networking and learn of upcoming barriers, obstacles or even enemy force locations? Perhaps artificial-intelligence-enabled forward robots can gather large volumes of sensor data, process and organize the critical information during operations and make adjustments and determinations as needed according to certain variables.
“What we learned is based on their mobility, their excellent mobility and their autonomous behaviors, we can actually have them move on a separate axis of advance and link up with the humans on the objective. So they can autonomously move without humans, link up with the humans, transfer back control, and then execute the mission. This gives the enemy multiple dilemmas,” Coffman said.
This is an interesting point: an unmanned force could advance along a separate, higher risk, attack vector than a manned force operating in a command and control capacity. A series of drones and armored vehicles could directly “close to contact” with an enemy force against incoming hostile fire with no risks to soldiers, while manned armored combat vehicles use the intelligence gathered by drones to identify a more advantageous route. This makes an enemy needing to defend against several simultaneous avenues of assault, potentially not knowing where offensive firepower might come from, according to Coffman.
Advanced algorithms are increasingly enabling robots to manage and analyze new variables previously too complex, dynamic or fast-changing for robots to navigate. For example, artificial-intelligence-empowered databases can compare new incoming intelligence data off of a vast database drawing from past circumstances and courses of action and analyze a host of alternatives to recommend an optimal course of action. While human cognition is uniquely valuable and something which cannot be replicated by computers, advanced data processing and artificial-intelligence-enabled computing can perform procedural functions much more quickly than humans and increasingly analyze a host of otherwise disparate variables in relation to one another.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.