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Technologies made for war

Rebecca Merrett | May 30, 2014
Autonomous systems considered the 'next big thing' in defence technology

"The machine shouldn't decide whether something is a red target or a blue target," he says. "You really need to put people in the loop where they see the information, they get all the intelligence and they say 'ah huh, we think this is a legitimate target or it is the right target'. The person with the right authority actually issues the command."

Autonomous systems can be supervised in the same way people supervise each other, allowing greater degrees of autonomy across certain tasks.

"If the systems just go off and act with [total] autonomy, or are self-governing, then you don't have any control," Zelinksy says. "That's not the way the military operates today and we are certainly not proposing any new technology would work any differently."

Having a soldier operate a single UAV is all good and well, but it doesn't offer much of a gain in productivity, Zelinsky continues. The challenge he is working through is to have the UAVs communicate with each other so that one soldier can operate multiple autonomous systems in a coordinated fashion.

This means flying vehicles need to be self-aware so that they don't collide with each other, maintain high bandwidth communications, and feature high-level command controls.

The human-machine interface is another consideration. "You wouldn't have nine joysticks for example; it's just impossible to simultaneously fly nine planes," Zelinksy points out. "We need to think about how to do that differently. These things would require greater intelligence in the machine itself."

Another challenge is making autonomous systems more lightweight and energy efficient so they can stay powered for extended periods of time. According to Zelinsky, many soldiers often have to carry batteries weighing up to 20 kilograms each.

"We call [soldiers] Christmas trees at times because they have so much equipment and gadgetry on them," he says. "So how do you develop technologies that are cheap, light and improve energy usage?"

Zelinsky is watching how technology companies in the consumer space develop user-friendly lightweight gadgets to find a solution. "That's one thing the consumer electronics business is very good at is building things cheaper, smaller and lighter. Ultimately, we can benefit out of that. The GPS systems were very big initially, now it's just a chip."

A mobile workforce
Mobility is also taking centre stage at the Department of Defence (DoD), where iPads and iPhones are being trialled by mostly field workers doing maintenance work to save them having to travel back to the office or a base and enter data into systems. Lawrence says the devices have been rolled out in the hundreds, and more will be rolled out as use cases grow.


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