Many opportunities, but also challenges
The underlying technologies that support autonomous systems, including robotics, artificial intelligence, software and wireless networks all continue to develop rapidly. These advances offer additional opportunities to make a wider variety of autonomous systems that are smaller, cheaper and able to operate in swarms to overwhelm adversary defences. This ability to function autonomously would therefore allow systems to reach their goals, even in unpredictable and unstructured environments such as undersea landscapes, with a wide range of benefits such as the faster execution of tasks, higher level of readiness, increased coordination and synchronisation with other platforms and increased redundancy, range and persistence.
There is a perception that the principle benefit of UMS is the removal of personnel from the battlefield and the introduction of a direct machine replacement. In consideration of unmanned systems and developments in autonomy these systems should be viewed as complementary to personnel, where the benefits of autonomy are used to augment existing human capabilities for the success of the mission. “It is not a question of putting humans versus machines, but rather to take advantage of the benefits machines can bring to make personnel more effective”, explains Paul O’Brian, the European Defence Agency’s (EDA’s) Project Officer for Naval Systems Technology.
Embracing new technologies
There still exists a challenge relating to the adoption and integration of UMS into the naval defence framework. The success of this is not only dependent on the development or acquisition of technology but also on organisational structures, the prevailing culture and the operational paradigms and tactics that need to be modernised. Referring back to the undersea environment, commanders are accustomed, more than their colleagues in other domains, to delegating tasks to assets that need neither constant monitoring nor control, as this could be detrimental to success rather than beneficial. The subsea culture would thus appear to be the most receptive to autonomous unmanned vehicles.