For the last two decades, unmanned systems, primarily in the form of remotely-piloted aircraft, have played a vital role in military strategy. With advances in computing power and machine learning, unmanned systems are poised to make a leap forward in the new decade – evolving from a mostly automated tool of the warfighter into an increasingly autonomous and integral partner.
Fully autonomous armed forces are still relegated to the pages of science fiction and movie screens for now. However, the near future will inevitably see a more profound shift toward human-machine teaming. In this new dynamic, man and machine will share situational awareness and decision making, each doing what it does best in a collaborative environment.
To a certain degree, this human-machine teaming is already present in military engagements. The TotalSight flash lidar imaging system, developed and built by Ball Aerospace and modified for use on the Insitu Scan Eagle UAV, delivers real-time, 3D color, full-motion video of the operational area of regard. The system provides warfighters critical x,y,z geolocation information that can be easily viewed, analyzed, and shared while on the move, providing mission-critical situational awareness. TotalSight is a perfect example of the critical role UAV systems can play in enhancing warfighter operations and adding capabilities not possible without a human/machine interface.
Today’s UAV systems are still reliant on a remote pilot knowledgeable of mission goals, objectives, context, etc. The next evolution in technologies, like TotalSight, will be shifting more of that knowledge and processing to the machine that will be piloted by on-board computers and artificial intelligence. To get to that point, a lot still needs to happen.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle is building trust between humans and their machine counterparts. Humans build rapport with each other through shared language, experiences, and context. When a fighter pilot flies a mission with three unfamiliar but human pilots, there is still a high level of trust based on the knowledge that they all went through rigorous training, have experienced a wide variety of situations and can be counted on to perform under pressure due to instincts and ability.