Tag Archives: Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST)

Smart Weapons Who Make Many Mistakes: AI in War

Autonomous weapon systems rely on artificial intelligence (AI), which in turn relies on data collected from those systems’ surroundings. When these data are good—plentiful, reliable and similar to the data on which the system’s algorithm was trained—AI can excel. But in many circumstances data are incomplete, ambiguous or overwhelming. Consider the difference between radiology, in which algorithms outperform human beings in analysing x-ray images, and self-driving cars, which still struggle to make sense of a cacophonous stream of disparate inputs from the outside world. On the battlefield, that problem is multiplied.

“Conflict environments are harsh, dynamic and adversarial,” says UNDIR. Dust, smoke and vibration can obscure or damage the cameras, radars and other sensors that capture data in the first place. Even a speck of dust on a sensor might, in a particular light, mislead an algorithm into classifying a civilian object as a military one, says Arthur Holland Michel, the report’s author. Moreover, enemies constantly attempt to fool those sensors through camouflage, concealment and trickery. Pedestrians have no reason to bamboozle self-driving cars, whereas soldiers work hard to blend into foliage. And a mixture of civilian and military objects—evident on the ground in Gaza in recent weeks—could produce a flood of confusing data.

The biggest problem is that algorithms trained on limited data samples would encounter a much wider range of inputs in a war zone. In the same way that recognition software trained largely on white faces struggles to recognise black ones, an autonomous weapon fed with examples of Russian military uniforms will be less reliable against Chinese ones. 

Despite these limitations, the technology is already trickling onto the battlefield. In its war with Armenia last year, Azerbaijan unleashed Israeli-made loitering munitions theoretically capable of choosing their own targets. Ziyan, a Chinese company, boasts that its Blowfish a3, a gun-toting helicopter drone, “autonomously performs…complex combat missions” including “targeted precision strikes”. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says that many of today’s remote-controlled weapons could be turned into autonomous ones with little more than a software upgrade or a change of doctrine….

On May 12th, 2021, the ICRD published a new and nuanced position on the matter, recommending new rules to regulate autonomous weapons, including a prohibition on those that are “unpredictable”, and also a blanket ban on any such weapon that has human beings as its targets. These things will be debated in December 2021 at the five-yearly review conference of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, originally established in 1980 to ban landmines and other “inhumane” arms. Government experts will meet thrice over the summer and autumn, under un auspices, to lay the groundwork. 

Yet powerful states remain wary of ceding an advantage to rivals. In March, 2021 a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence established by America’s Congress predicted that autonomous weapons would eventually be “capable of levels of performance, speed and discrimination that exceed human capabilities”. A worldwide prohibition on their development and use would be “neither feasible nor currently in the interests of the United States,” it concluded—in part, it argued, because Russia and China would probably cheat. 

Excerpt from Autonomous weapons: The fog of war may confound weapons that think for themselves, Economist, May 29, 2021

Killer Robotic Insects

On November 12, 2017,  a video called “Slaughterbots” was uploaded to YouTube. … It is set in a near-future in which small drones fitted with face-recognition systems and shaped explosive charges can be programmed to seek out and kill known individuals or classes of individuals (those wearing a particular uniform, for example). In one scene, the drones are shown collaborating with each other to gain entrance to a building. One acts as a petard, blasting through a wall to grant access to the others…

[M]ilitary laboratories around the planet are busy developing small, autonomous robots for use in warfare, both conventional and unconventional. In America, in particular, a programme called MAST (Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology), which has been run by the US Army Research Laboratory in Maryland, is wrapping up this month after ten successful years….. Its successor, the Distributed and Collaborative Intelligent Systems and Technology (DCIST) programme, which began earlier this year, is now getting into its stride….Along with flying drones, MAST’s researchers have been developing pocket-sized battlefield scouts that can hop or crawl ahead of soldiers. DCIST’s purpose is to take these autonomous robots and make them co-operate. The result, if the project succeeds, will be swarms of devices that can take co-ordinated action to achieve a joint goal.

If swarms of small robots can be made to collaborate autonomously, someone, somewhere will do it…[Many of these small robots are today] cyclocopters …of less than 30 grams. Such machines can outperform polycopters...Cyclocopter aerodynamics is more like that of insects than of conventional aircraft…Cyclocopters get better as they get smaller. They are also quieter…[Another innovation involves] robots…that hop.One of the most advanced is Salto, developed by the Biomimetic Millisystems Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Salto… has the agility to bounce over uneven surfaces and also to climb staircases…

Bouncing over the rubble of a collapsed building is not the only way to explore it. Another is to weave through the spaces between the debris. Researchers at the Biomimetic Millisystems lab are working on that, too. Their solution resembles a cockroach.

Getting into a building, whether collapsed or intact, is one thing. Navigating around it without human assistance is quite another. For this purpose MAST has been feeding its results to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)… The next challenge…is getting the robots to swarm and co-ordinate their behavior effectively.

Excerpt from Miniature Robots: Bot Flies, Economist, Dec. 16, 2017