By Spencer Ackerman
The next time Marines find themselves in a tight spot in any clime or place, they might make a quick call to a drone to ferry them out. And the Navy wants that communication to occur like David Hasselhof summoning Kitt: a Marine below talking to a robot above.
As part of a call for research, the Navy says it wants a software package that can get troops barking orders to drones when things go wrong in a warzone — without relying on any remotely-situated pilots. “There is currently interest in the idea of using an Unmanned Air System (UAS) to deliver cargo to marines in the field or to provide casualty evacuation or extraction,” the solicitation reads.
To be clear, the Navy doesn’t want interested companies to build it a new drone. The military wants better communications with certain kinds of drones — the kinds that don’t even have pilots controlling them through joysticks miles away. But those allegedly “autonomous” systems might compound the difficulty of getting Marines out of tight spots.
Cargo drops aren’t as big a deal: they’re soon to be in the standard drone wheelhouse. Last year, the Air Force put out bids for totally autonomous drones to supply remote bases; the Marines have long coveted a helicopter version. But medevac or quick-escape may be a different story.
Any piloted aircraft in the U.S. military arsenal has a way of talking to the ground, with varying layers of intermediaries. It doesn’t matter if that pilot is in a cockpit flying a plane or in a refrigerated metal box steering a drone through a video game-like console. The Air Force embeds go-betweens called Joint Terminal Attack Controllers with ground units in case there’s a need for air support. Drone operators can even IM with those intermediaries to keep track of what’s happening 20,000 feet below their drones.
But the Navy wants its drones to be truly pilot-less. As the solicitation puts it, the military is looking to developing drones and drone-control systems with “a very high degree of on-board autonomy” and “little or no human supervision” that can fly through “possible threats, high winds, and complex terrain/landing conditions including landing on slopes and around man-made and natural obstacles, people, water, and soft terrain.” It’s already demonstrated that human-free drones like the Fire Scout robo-copter can do what programmers tell them to do.
But with an autonomous-drone future come challenges in getting Marines out of firefights. There are “limitations in the current and projected state-of-the art in autonomy,” as the Navy solicitation notes, making it likely that the Marines in need would have to give the drones “guidance… beyond that required by pilots of manned aircraft performing a similar mission.” That means telling the drones where to land, what dangers their flight paths or their landing zones entail, and “high-level directions and spatial and temporal information” about where they’re going to touch down.
The solicitation imagines a simple interface, loadable on “ruggedized laptop computers [or] smaller PDA-like devices,” and something that doesn’t require much “heads down” time looking at a screen, since people might be shooting at the operator. Talking to the drone could occur through Madden-esque “whiteboard” functions where Marines sketch digital maps on a stylus or through voice recognition — whatever’s easiest — as long as companies don’t “develo[p] new approaches to speech recognition, sketch input, etc.” (Natural, casual human-robot vocal interaction is still a ways away, as the Octavia robot funded by the Navy demonstrates.)
Then there’s the fact of actually lifting wounded Marines out of battle. One option is the cargo drone-copter that the Marines are eyeing, the Kaman K-MAX helicopter, can carry up to 6000 pounds. Whether it can safely ferry wounded troops without medical personnel on board and get them to a doctor within the so-called “golden hour” — the first hour after injury — has yet to be tested.
Pulling the stunt off technically will be just one of the things the robo-copter will have to do. They’ll also need to reassure troops, somehow, that they’re in good (mechanical) hands: “Operator trust will play an important role in the usefulness of these tools and that must be considered in the development of the approach.” The robots may be autonomous, but they’re still going to have to work with us humans.