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The Rise of Killer Drones That Can Think for Themselves

The U.S. military may be a decade or so away from deploying an army of pilotless drones capable of collaborating and killing without any human guidance.

There must be a crazy-haired mad scientist roaming the U.S. military’s research laboratories unsupervised.  That’s the most reasonable explanation for the military's latest advancement in drone technology.  

Drones, also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), are flying robots remotely operated by pilots thousands of miles away, allowing soldiers to spy, survey, and obliterate the so-called enemy at the press of a button, much like a video game, except in the real world people die.  As though video game warfare wasn't disturbing enough, it appears the military has gone even further, attempting to remove human control from the equation.

According to the  Washington Post’s Peter Finn, the U.S. military is a decade or so away from deploying an army of pilotless drones capable of collaborating with one another in order to hunt down, identify, and annihilate an enemy combatant all on their own, without any human guidance.  The U.S. military has teamed up with the Georgia Tech Research Institute to test these autonomous aerial drones, which will use facial-recognition type software to identify the targeted individual.

In other words, in the very near future, automated flying robots, instead of human pilots, will make decisions on whether or not to launch an attack to annihilate human beings on the ground based on biometrics software.  I can think of a half-dozen science fiction movies (Terminator, anyone?) where allowing the machines to call the shots, particularly when dealing with life and death, backfired on their human overlords.

But let’s put the Hollywood, “robots take over,” fear aside for a moment, and look at the technology behind these robot killers.

Superhuman Powers: Programmed Reasoning and Biometrics

According to the  Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047, published by the U.S. Air Force, "Human senses, reasoning, and physical performance will be augmented using sensors, biotechnology, robotics, and computing power." 

Spencer Ackerman at Wired explains that programmed reasoning is already taking place with algorithms that mimic the reasoning process of human pilots to avoid air collisions. Earlier this year, the  X-47B, a UAV built by Northrop Grumman for the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D), successfully launched and landed from an aircraft carrier autonomously.  The program also plans to demonstrate autonomous aerial refueling by 2014.

As for biometrics, today’s unmanned drones preform endless hours of surveillance hovering, watching and gathering data from below. The army wants to enhance that surveillance power by arming drones with the technology to track down and identify specific individuals, in a process called Tagging, Tracking, and Locating (TTL).

According to  Danger Room’s Noah Shachtman, the Army has awarded several  contracts to high-tech firms in order to equip their army of drones with top of the line facial recognition software and state-of the art programs capable of recognizing “potentially hostile behavior and intent”, which basically tasks the firms with transforming existing drones into TTL machines.

The Army is  requesting “Long Range, Non-cooperative, Biometric Tagging, Tracking and Location” systems that “prove the ability to track object of high value in any weather and when only appearing momentarily throughout the area of interest.”

Progeny Systems Corporation won a contract to develop a “drone-mounted” TTL system capable of distinguishing between identical twins.  According to Shachtman, Progeny “is one of several firms that has developed algorithms for the military that  use two-dimensional images to construct a 3D model of a face.”  

With a single 50-pixel image between a person’s eyes, Progeny can build a 3D model of the person’s face.  Once the model in “enrolled” into their system, a 15 to 20-pixel image is all that is needed to identify the individual in the future.  Progeny will also utilizes “soft biometrics” capable of “digital stereotyping” that can track a person too far away for facial recognition based on gender, ethnicity, height, and weight.