Last July, Piasecki Aircraft Corporation, with the help of Carnegie Mellon University, developed a navigation system that allows the full-sized helicopters to fly at low altitudes without a pilot. These new unmanned helicopters are the latest in automated military technology; where the predator drone UAV demonstrated a significant step in the development of unmanned - and lethal - military technologies, these helicopters can now be controlled remotely by nothing more than a pilot and computer.
In a press release from Helicopter Association International, such autonomous flight at low altitudes is an “unprecedented” innovation, and can be used for “future unmanned helicopters to evacuate wounded soldiers from contaminated or live-fire battlefields and to resupply forward military bases [as well as] aid to help both military and civilian pilots avoid obstacles, such as power lines, and select landing sites in unimproved areas such as emergency scenes, even when operating in low-light or low-visibility conditions.”
“The last decade has seen great advances in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), including both fixed and rotary wing types, [such as] planes and helicopters as well as related variants like quadcopters. Most systems so far have been relatively small and are already widely used in military and security contexts, especially for reconnaissance and surveillance. The development of an autonomous full-sized helicopter was hence to some extent a natural - though also highly challenging - next step,” School of Engineering and Science professor at the Bremen-based Jacobs University, Dr Andreas Birk, told ISN Security Watch.
Parallel to this development, defense giant Lockheed Martin came up with a system able to be installed on Army road vehicles that would allow for autonomous control in dangerous areas. In a $5.3 million contract signed with the US Army, Lockheed developed the Convoy Active Safety Technology (CAST) that can be “[attached] to [a] truck that enables it to drive itself, using radar and sensors (not, say, GPS) to navigate toward a programmed destination.”
According to a report by Danger Room and the latest edition of Defense Technology International, “The system is designed to keep formation with its convoy partners, adjusting speed to maintain safe distances between vehicles, and to pick up the slack if a lead vehicle is disabled.” Reports further note that, after a significant amount of research, “drivers-turned-passengers riding in CAST-controlled trucks were 25 percent more likely to spot roadside bombs.”
By early August of this year, the US military partnered with the government of Belize to test an unmanned Boeing A160T Hummingbird helicopter, which was photographed in the skies of Cayo, 25 miles from the border of Guatemala. According to Aviation Week, this aircraft was “one of two deployed to Latin America by US Special Operations Command to test the DARPA-developed Forester foliage-penetration radar in counter-narcotics operations.” Danger Room noted that the aircraft “could also prove useful in urban areas or in Afghanistan, where its radar could help it surveil forested mountains and bring supplies to Special Forces teams at night.”
While deployment to warzones has yet to materialize, testing these technologies is increasing, especially considering the recent crash of an unmanned helicopter in California’s Mojave Desert. On 29 July 2010, a Boeing A160T Hummingbird reconnaissance helicoptercrashed while being controlled two miles away from the old George Air Force Base where Boeing Advanced Systems has a test facility.
But the US is not the only country hoping to augment some of its force with electronic capabilities. In fact, these types of technologies are already being developed by other states: Russia has developed an unmanned rotocraft; Burma reportedly has a line of UAVs (although currently delayed due to a few missing components); China has its own US drone knock-off; and Israel has developed some of its own unmanned technologies, which include UAVs it has used to train German soldiers to fly in Afghanistan earlier this year.
“The related work in the USA is currently a bit more military oriented, whereas rescue and safety applications dominate the research in Europe and Japan. Firefighting - especially for large forest fires - is of some interest in Europe; earthquake response is a major application area in Japan. Given the significant engagements and problems of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is understandable that the military side of applications plays a bigger role in the US,” Birk said.
All of this is bringing about new concerns of unmanned and automated technological developments, many of which are being eyed by the US military for eventual use in surveillance and combat scenarios.
“The main scientific challenge, especially for helicopters, is the flight control, which has to be very fast and which has to deal with a very complex, hard-to-model system. It is a great scientific achievement to let a full-sized helicopter engage in autonomous flight,” Birk explained.
And all of this has significant implications for the future of warfare. From the Pentagon’s perspective, research in these technologies should reduce risks and casualties to its own forces, potentially allowing US military hegemony to sustain itself over longer periods of time with fewer backlashes from a public that would otherwise grow increasingly enraged over a large and long-term American presence abroad coupled with increased soldier deaths.
That said, Birk does “not expect a decrease in manpower by using more and more computerized or robotized systems. The systems need a significant amount of supervision and maintenance. And even in autonomous operations, it is very likely that there is somewhere a human in the loop specifying the mission and controlling its outcomes. But the profile of soldiers will significantly change to be more technology-oriented.”
Beyond this, ethical concerns still remain in the debates that have developed between unmanned, automated and robotized technologies. But even as the American economy dwindles, the Pentagon will surely continue to fund the research and development of these new machines, either to help scale down its human force in favor of ‘warbots,’ to potentially decrease the level of casualties of its forces (and thereby decrease political constraints to its interests globally), or both.
By: Jody Ray Bennett