“They are unbound by human limitations. They can remain airborne for long durations, do not require life support systems, do not need to eat or sleep, and they will never say no to a mission.”
It’s no wonder political and military leaders are increasingly resting their futures on unmanned systems. From the mature Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) circling the skies above our troops (and enemies) in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the embryonic cargo haulers and unmanned ground vehicles being developed in academic and industry labs, future military operations are clearly heavily dependent on robots. Yet, for all the use robots are seeing in current combat operations around the globe, and for all the money being spent on their development and acquisition, there is no clearly articulated and agreed upon roadmap for their future growth and development.
This essay seeks to fill that void by using a commonly accepted framework for understanding the roles for robotic devices, overlaying it with the current state of robots and anticipated future development, and plotting out a logical end state. But first, to understand all of this, it’s necessary to start by looking at a much simpler creature: the fruit fly.
Biologists have studied fruit flies to understand human development since 1910, when Thomas Morgan began using them in his research at Columbia University. Their rapid life cycle, the ability to study multi- generational development in short periods of time, and their genetic overlap with humans (among other measures, half their protein sequences have mammalian equivalents) mean scientists can study the fruit fly, and end up better understanding people. Humans are too complicated, and live too long, to be able to do all necessary life-cycle studies on them. Today, the fruit fly is being used to understand a range of human conditions, including Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.
People studying military robotics face a similar challenge. The field of robotics is so expansive that to try understanding it all requires focusing on a single robot with significantly overlapping qualities to the rest of the robotics field, as the humble fruit fly has to humans. For that reason, this essay looks at the growth and development of UAVs in order to understand the broader issues surrounding military robotics as a whole.