Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Military Slaughterbots

         Nano drone ''Black Hornet'' a military UAV developed by Prox Dynamics in Norway.
On November 12th a video called “slaughterbots” was uploaded to YouTube.The video starts with a spectacular press conference event where the technology was unveiled for the first time. The miniature drones are able to take out "the bad guys" – or whoever they happen to be assigned on – without any collateral damage. Forget about nuclear weapons or troops on the ground!  What the drone bots need is just a descriptive digital profile of the target: Age, location, sex, height, uniform, nationality and ethnicity. This project is the brainchild of Stuart Russell, a professor of Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the University of California, Berkeley in the US. The project funded by the Future of Life Institute (FLI), a group of concerned scientists and technologists that includes Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal and among other sponsors. 
Military robots are getting smaller and more capable soon, they will travel in swarms
In the days not far from now all military nano drones will be fitted with face-recognition systems, geotags and armed with explosive charges or other weapons systems that can be programmed to seek out and kill the known individuals or classes of individuals (those wearing a particular uniform, for example). The drones can collaborate with each other fulfil a complex task. One can acts as a Petard, blasting through a wall to grant access to the others to knock out the target.   Military laboratories around the planet are busy developing small, autonomous robots for use in warfare, both conventional and unconventional.

Drone Projects


 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, which was unveiled in December 2017 after ten years successful testing. MAST co-ordinated and sponsored for robotization research by a consortium of established laboratories, notably at the University of Maryland, Texas A&M University and Berkeley (the work at Berkeley is unrelated to Dr Russell’s). Its successor, the Distributed and Collaborative Intelligent Systems and Technology (DCIST) programme, which began earlier last year, is now getting into its stride. 

In 2008, when MAST began, a spy drone that you could hold in the palm of your hand was an idea borrowed from science fiction. Such drones today are now common. Along with flying drones, MAST’s researchers have been developing pocket-sized battlefield scouts that can hop or crawl ahead of soldiers to provide ''a bird-eye-view'' for intelligence gathering on the enemies. DCIST’s purpose is to take these autonomous robots and make them efficiency and battle interoperability.  
At the moment, America’s defence department is committed to keeping such swarms under human control, so that the decision to pull a trigger will always be taken by a person rather than a machine. The Pentagon is alarmed by the prospect of granting robots autonomous decision to execute killing. Someone said nuclear weapons which are regarded as the only secret that worth of keeping is now out; AI, drone technology and indeed nanobots pose more threat than anything else.  

Existing small drones are usually polycopters, kind of tiny helicopters that have a set of rotors (generally four or six) arranged at the vertices of a regular polygon, rather than a single one above their centre of gravity. Some MAST researchers, however, think they have alighted on something better. They proposed a replacement to cyclocopter. This new version resembles an airborne paddle steamer. Though the idea of cyclocopters has been around for a while, the strong, lightweight materials needed to make them have hitherto been unavailable and the computing tools needed to design them have only recently been created. The materials and tools needed for the paradigm shift now exist, things are advancing rapidly. Over the course of the MAST project, the researchers have shrunk cyclocopters from being behemoths weighing half a kilogram to svelte devices that tip the scales at less than 30 grams. The design of Cyclocopter aerodynamics is comparable to the insects than of conventional aircraft. For small cyclocopters this helps. Vortex effects become proportionately more powerful as an aircraft shrinks, but, in the case of conventional craft, including polycopters, that makes things worse, by decreasing stability. Cyclocopters get better as they get smaller. They are also quieter. 

As Moble Benedict of Texas A&M, one of the leaders of the cyclocopter project, observes, “aerodynamic noise is a strong function of the blade-tip speed” — hence the whup-whup-whup of helicopters. The blade-tip speeds of cyclocopters are much lower and quieter. That makes them ideal for spying. 


They also have better manoeuvrability and are less disturbed by gusts of wind. Dr Benedict reckons cyclocopters are about two years away from commercial drone production. Once that happens they could displace polycopters in many roles, not just military ones. But they are not the only novel technology in which MAST has been involved. The programme has also worked on robots that hop. One of the most advanced is Salto, developed by the Biomimetic Millisystems Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Salto is a monopod weighing 98 grams that has a rotating tail and side-thrusters. These let it stabilise itself and reorient in mid-leap. That gives it the agility to bounce over uneven surfaces and also to climb staircases. Salto’s speed (almost two metres a second) puts huge demands on its single leg. Ron Fearing, one of the electrical engineers developing it, puts things thus: “imagine a cheetah running at top speed using only one leg, and then cut the amount of time that leg spends on the ground in half.” As with cyclocopters, the materials and processing power needed to do this have only recently come into existence.

 Dr Fearing says Salto and its kin are quieter than aerial drones and can operate in confined spaces where flying robots would be disturbed by turbulence reflected from the walls. They can also travel over terrain, such as collapsed buildings, that is off-limits to wheeled vehicles. Salto still needs work. In particular, it needs to be able to cling more effectively to what it lands on. Dr Fearing uses the analogy of a squirrel leaping from branch to branch. Arriving at the next branch is only half the battle. The other half is staying there. Once that is solved, though, which it should be in the next year or two.

 Researchers at the Biomimetic Millisystems lab are working on robotization. Their solution resembles a cockroach. Its body is broad and flat, which gives it stability but also permits it to crawl through narrow spaces — if necessary by going up on one side. Should it tip over whilst attempting this, it has wing-like extensions it can use to flip itself upright again. 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), America’s main federal military-research organisation. According to Brett Piekarski, who led MAST and is now in charge of DCIST, the Fast Lightweight Autonomy (FLA) programme at DARPA will continue MAST’s work with the aim of developing small drones that can “ingress and egress into buildings and navigate within those buildings at high speeds”. Some of that has already been done. In June DARPA reported that polycopters souped up by the FLA programme were able to slalom through woodlands, swerve around obstacles in a hangar and report back to their starting-point, all by themselves. 

Swarm Attacks


The next challenge — the people like Dr Russell particularly worry about —the military robots fly in a swarm and coordinate their behaviour effectively. Under the aegis of MAST, a group from the General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania have managed to make tiny drones to fly together in coordinated formations without hitting each other. The drones in a swarm can be mimicking like bees or a flock of birds, since their got sensory information that allowed them to conduct a synchronized task. GRASP’s drone swarms employ ground-based sensors to track individual drones or moving them around, this achieved by the central controller that monitoring and avoid them from colliding. 

 A farewell demonstration by MAST, in August, showed three robots (two on the ground and one in the air) keeping station with each other using only hardware that was on board the robots themselves. This opens the way for larger flocks of robots to coordinate without outside intervention. Moreover, as that demonstration showed, when drones and other robots routinely flocking together in this way, they will not necessarily be birds of a feather. “Heterogeneous group control” is a new discipline that aims to tackle the thorny problem of managing units that consist of various robots — some as small as a dragonfly, others as large as a jeep — as well as human team members. Swarm drones will also be able to break up into sub-units example scooters, escorts, attackers and hunters that search the hostile environment include building and then recombine once they have successfully done the mission.


Such things are the goals of DCIST. The first tranche of grants to these ends, some $27m of them, has already been awarded to the University of Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley. When DCIST itself wraps up, probably in 2022, the idea of Slaughterbots may seem a lot less fictional than it does now.


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