Future of unmanned systems uncertain, but hopeful, says robotics official

Now that the United States has pulled out of Iraq and is drawing down operations in Afghanistan, urgent operational needs are winding down as well, and that's presenting hurdles in the development of high technology such as unmanned systems and robotics, according to one Defense Department official.

“As we draw down there will be less joint operational urgent needs, and at some point supply [of robotics] will exceed demand,” said Rob Maline, director of the Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise, Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Still, Maline said there’s a wealth of development happening in the world of military robotics, and though the wars in southwest Asia are wrapping up, innovation will continue.

“When [Defense Secretary Leon Panetta] delivered his vision he used words like ‘unmanned systems,’ so we’re going to use this to our advantage,” Maline said Feb. 7 at the AUVSI Unmanned Systems Program Review 2012 conference in Washington on Feb. 8. “The fact that it was highlighted is encouraging for us. Our vision is a manned/unmanned force that strengthens the United States as the world’s preeminent land power.”

Maline said the future of robotics hinges on a partnership between man and robot that is different from the current generation of unmanned systems.

“It’s not a soldier or airmen with their head down concentrating on a control system. It’s a team, a man and a robot or system or apparatus that can be talked with, conversed with naturally,” he said. “It’s much more of a human type of partnership that we’re used to.”

However, Maline recognized there are many challenges ahead in the development of such robotics, including cultural acceptance, operational requirements and the speed of technological evolution.

“There’s the political, policy, legal and ethical issues – that’s the culture part. Then there’s the adoption – the relative advantage, compatibility with existing systems, not too complex, able to understand and experiment with the innovation and become familiar…that’s the acceptance,” Maline said.

Operational needs are changing quickly as the tone and purpose of current conflicts shift, he also said.

“We have to have balanced requirements – we need to reconcile [deployable] technology with prioritized, articulated requirements. And there will be fewer of those requirements,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out if we’re going to maintain and sustain [systems] for the next conflict, or if we’re going to develop all new procedures and policies and tactics for the future.”

However, Maline asserted that robotic development will continue, and could make future conflicts safer for warfighters.

“The challenge is right now robots have limited ability to do things like predict behavior, collaborate effectively, learn tasks and adapt to new situations and environments. We’re making progress but these are still fundamental challenges we have,” Maline said. “As it gets easier for us to wage war in a way where we’re not in harm’s way, some of those burdens to entry aren’t as great. It’s no longer a nasty business to get into; you can do it sitting a pretty far distance away.”

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