Why it matters

Over the last decade unmanned systems have become regular features of conflicts. The use of drones (unmanned aerial systems), in particular, illustrates the huge potential of unmanned systems. 

While remotely-controlled drones are probably the most prominent example of unmanned systems technology, the latter’s true potential covers all military services and environments (land, sea, air and space). The use of remote-controlled unmanned systems is only a first step. Future unmanned systems will see higher degrees of autonomy provided inter alia by Artificial Intelligence (AI) or cognitive computing. The search for autonomy first focused on navigation aspects and later extended to self-protection aspects. The focus currently is on the exploitation of sensors and effectors to execute specific missions. 

What the EDA does

The EDA has conducted several collaborative R&T projects focusing on different degrees of autonomy (tele-operated, semi-autonomous or autonomous) for ground, naval or air applications. 

In the ground domain some aspects of autonomy in terms of vehicle following or obstacle avoidance have been addressed in the HyMUP (Hybrid Manned-Unmanned Platooning) project aiming to prove the feasibility of mounted combat missions of unmanned systems coordinating with regular manned vehicles. Additionally protection of autonomous systems against enemy interference and safety requirements for combined manned-unmanned mission will be addressed in the EDA’s PASEI project (Protection Against Enemy Interference). 

In the naval domain the Unmanned Maritime Systems (UMS) programme consists of 15 coordinated projects that address the specific challenges posed by Maritime Mine Countermeasure (MMCM) operations. Completed projects such as MLM (Modular Lightweight Minesweeping) focus on removing staff from minefields and replacing expensive manned vessels with an unmanned solution. The dominant vision for future minesweeping is smaller lightweight unmanned surface vehicles equipped with lightweight sweep sources, either operating alone or together with other vehicles in a formation. A follow on project is currently under preparation. Other projects such as NECSAVE (Networked Enable Cooperation Systems) focus on the swarm concept for communication networks. Finally, the challenge of underwater communications is one of the keys to unlocking the possibilities of persistent autonomy. RACUN (Robust Acoustic Underwater Communications Networks) is an EDA project that addresses this topic. A follow on project entitled SALSA (Smart Adaptive Long and Short Range Underwater Acoustics Networks) is under preparation. 

In the air domain, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) are an area in which automation  and autonomy are key elements. The EDA is involved in the development and standardisation of these capabilities with a clear objective: the integration of military RPAS in the European airspace. MIDCAS (MID air Collision Avoidance System) and ERA (Enhanced RPAS Automation) are the main projects in this area. 

Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) is a cross cutting domain where the ADM-H (Autonomous Decision Making based coordination techniques for Heterogeneous Autonomous Vehicles) project was conducted by the EDA to improve  decision-making algorithms for the coordination of groups of unmanned systems engaged in a military mission and the exploitation of the operational advantages of using such systems in future defence theatres. The performance assessment has shown that through adequately coordinated unmanned heterogeneous vehicles even complex tasks directed by a Commander can be handled autonomously, reducing the human workload except for the most critical decisions. 

The way ahead

Successful implementation of autonomous systems in defence does not depend exclusively on technology development. 

Doctrines will need to be reviewed and updated as military tactics and procedures may change with the introduction of autonomous systems. Political, cultural, sociological and regulatory issues as well as their potential ethical and legal implications and safety constraints will also need to be considered especially when autonomous systems are armed with lethal weapons. 

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