Military & Aerospace

Unmanned Platforms and Artificial Intelligence - Where do we stand now
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 12 Feb , 2021

Drones are the future of warfare. These machines can go anywhere, anytime, almost undetected to the electronic surveillance equipment’s and can carry a lethal punch for the enemy without any risk of collateral damage.

These are low cost, smart and highly flexible who are becoming smarter day by day with the use of Artificial Intelligence. Till now the drones were being operated from far distance by an operator who was taking decisions but what if the machine itself has a mind of its own, can take decisions and can sense threats like a human mind. That’s what the modern-day scientists are working on. There are several agencies who have developed autonomous machines capable of fighting in isolation, search and detect its enemy, prioritise the target and destroy the same with utmost precision.

First lets understand as to how these smart machines work. The secret of Artificial Intelligence (AI) powered drones are a successful mix of four major components- Mechanical Devices, Sensors, Navigational Equipment and an AI driven computer. The computer has several algorithms which helps the machine takes its own decisions. But before that the machine is to be trained. An operator puts the data of terrain features like Wall, Seaside, Water bodies, Cliffs, or an area full of vegetation. It puts the images or videos of such features which can be identified by the sensors. It also programs the target details like description of military equipment’s, Humans, and other military installations. These details further get stored and forms the Machine Learning Algorithms of the drone. Some of the criterion for these Machine Learning Algorithms are: –

    • Object detection, Identification, counting, segregation, and tracking.
    • Identification of living being- human or animal, loaded with weapons or unarmed etc.
    • Counting of objects and their dispersal pattern.
    • In case of night or adverse weather, identify thermal signatures of various objects.
    • Fire and smoke detection. Identify direction of fire for own survivability.
    • In case of damage- assessing criticality of own damage and work out plan for same.
    • Battlefield damage assessment.
    • Meteorological assessment.

All the sensors like Camera, GPS or other navigational aids, Data link for communication, weather sensors and all other types of sensors are well connected with the brain of these drones. Now when a drone is launched, it goes and scans the entire area in its field of view. It records the images in front it and runs through them with use of its Machine Learning Algorithms which connects the right image and segregate the objects based on pre-planned algorithms.

For example,let’s take a scenario- A drone is programmed to attack the incoming armoured columns of the enemy in the battlefield where there is a high possibility of own forces being present. It is programmed with the data, images, and electronic signatures of the armoured vehicles of the enemy with a suitable algorithm. Now when flying over a tactical zone, it encounters several armoured vehicles in the area. It scans each image obtained through its camera with the Machine Learning Algorithms fed in its computer. There will be cases where it may detect an enemy tank which is further identified using the algorithms and, in such case, its pre-programmed software instructs the drone to aim and fire. It destroys the tank and relays the success through its data link to the master control room for further processing while moving to another pre-planned trajectory to scan the area.

Very soon such incidents are going to be common in the global military scenario. There are companies which are already working on the military applications of AI. Lets discuss few of them.

    • Companies like “AeroVironment” are developing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles which can fly in an autonomous mode. It used the GPS for navigation with the terrain mapping to detect objects coming its way.It can collect the data from the missions and help the operator take decision in subsequent operations. They are studying how to learn the flights of an insect and develop AI based solution based on same.
    • Lockheed Martin”, an important military manufacturer of United States has been making its “Desert Hawk III UAV” AI enabled. This UAV already operated in several operations in middle east and Afghanistan and is a trusted platform for AI applications. This machine when programmed, can give suggestions to its operator about various flight plans based on the data stored in its sensors.
    • Shield.Ai”, a company started by a former Navy Seal “Brandon Tseng” has developed an AI based technology which can help an unmanned machine operate in the areas of no GPS coverage. Vehicles based on this technology can operate inside buildings, tunnels, underground spaces and even underwater. Their machines also have a special algorithm enabling them to communicate with each other and identify the route while working in an electronic mash.
    • Neurala”, an American company is working towards object detection in its AI based solutions. They have already developed a face detection system in partnership with Motorola for civilian use where they can identify a face effectively in a large crowd in just few minutes. However similar applications can be used in a tactical environment too to distinguish important targets.
    • Drone Sense”, a Texas based company is developing software which can enable multiple drones to operate in a tactical environment where each drone has the data of the flight plans of other drones. This is very much effective in case of a “Drone Swarm”. It will also help in mapping a large area using multiple drones in less time.
    • SCALE”, a San Francisco based company has products which can carry out the imaging of an area using artificial intelligence effectively and that too in autonomous mode. This technology can be effective in battlefield reconnaissance and post damage assessments.
    • Another Texas based company “Applied Aeronautics” has made a fully autonomous “Albatross” UAV which is widespread in use for civilian applications. This UAV can do the survey, inspections and can also be used in disaster response primarily in search and rescue operations. NASA is using these drones too.
    • One of the top drone maker DJI of China has developed a high-performance AI based system called “Manifold” which helps its machines perform complex computing tasks and advanced image processing while on the move. Manifold has the capability to sense the surrounding environment, identify objects and take decisions accordingly.
    • Aerospace engineers at “University of Cincinnati” developed an AI based system called “ALPHA” which makes any combat UAV capable of fighting in a real time scenario. During the simulator-based trials, it could defeat human pilots in aerial combat.
    • The latest development in the AI powered drones, Boeing has developed its AI based drone called “Airpower Teaming System (ATS)” which is a 38 feet long drone capable of not only providing intelligence, Reconnaissance, and surveillance but can fly for over 2000 nautical miles in an autonomous mode and can help in tactical early warning and target designation too. It can perform tactical teaming up with existing aircrafts of the mission and fly autonomous while keeping safety parameters while allowing these aircrafts to carry out effective target engagements from a standoff distance.
    • In addition to the major technology partners, United States Air Force and its “Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)” is developing “Skyborg”, an Artificial intelligence-based platform based on “Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie” UAVs. This is a low-cost UAV and as per “Skyborg” program, a large autonomous swarm of up to 250 UAVs can operate in co-ordination with other ground or air-based systems. They are also working on fitting mini super computers like “Aitech’s A176 Cyclone and A178 Thunder” on various unmanned platforms which will enable these machines to analyse large data and make decisions exactly like human mind.
    • Israel is another country which is working towards integration of Artificial Intelligence in military technology. It is fitting its smart munitions with AI to have an effective target designation. Also developing an AI based armoured tank while reducing the number of operators from four to two with enhanced capabilities. They are also working towards developing new AI based versions of their unmanned aerial vehicles like Heron.

China- Taking a leap in AI based Military Applications

Being India’s neighbour and having several friction points, China is considered the primary adversary of India in current perspective. Today, China is developing its AI based Unmanned platforms probably at the fastest pace. In last few years Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) has undergone their organizational reforms and adopted a new doctrine to determine how to operate AI-enabled platforms and wage intelligent warfare in an effective manner. The commissioning rate of unmanned combat platforms in PLA is fastest among any other force of the world.

During its National Day in Oct 2019, it displayed some of the platforms which pulled the attraction of the entire world. On one hand it is developing AI based versions of its “Caihongor CH- Rainbow family of drones, it is also producing high altitude super speed UAVs like WZ-8 and Hongdu GJ-11 Sharp Sword. It also showcased its autonomous underwater platform named as HSU-001. It also developed a helicopter based smaller attack UAV named “Blowfish A-2”, which is small, AI powered and can go undetected to drop payload to the enemy.

We can understand the PLA doctrine of unmanned vehicles in few simple steps as given below: –

    • Chinese military strategists are exploring to deploy these drones for air strike missions, anti-submarine warfare, airborne operations, and amphibious landing missions. Such is the importance that most of the PLA battalions have been provided surveillance UAVs at the company level.
    • PLA is effectively analysing the “swarming concept of drones” where several unmanned systems are operating in a dense electromagnetic environment. They are also developing anti-UAV countermeasures so that the first-move advantage of other countries can be negated.
    • The PLA wants to fit its old and obsolete combat platforms with AI which will prove to be an extreme low-cost system.It may use its retired second- and third- generation jet fighters like the J-7 and the J-8 to build an unmanned AI-enabled air fleet using self- navigation technology and autonomous combat systems that automatically pursue, distinguish, and destroy enemy targets. While being used as a swarm, these systems will give PLA a huge asymmetric advantage.
    • China is working on a concept by installing intensive sensors fitted with Machine Learning Algorithms to process the intelligence at a flashing speed, disseminate the information to all stakeholders and attack the target using multiple platforms with utmost precision.Their UAVs can analyse the weaknesses of enemy defences and using terrain mapping, identify the safest route for frontline PLA troops to attack.
    • China is also working on unmanned electronic warfare systems where an aerial vehicle can up in the air and jam the communication or other electronic equipment’s of the enemy from a standoff range.
    • In terms of communication technology, Chinese researchers working out the possibility to fit these UAVs with ultra-high-rate, ultra-large-capacity, and ultra-low-latency technology like 5G and satellite data link which can transfer data and other communication quickly between the different areas. With the use of AI, the analysis and interpretation of large data from multiple sources becomes possible.

In addition to this, China is using AI in various other ways to bolster its military capabilities and in big data analytics. The pace is very fast and with the complete control of government, the modernisation of PLA is happening at an alarming pace.

India- Where do we stand now

Despite of the fact that more than 50% of the Artificial Intelligence developers of the world are from Indian origin, our country is lagging in its military applications. It was only in 2019 when we could set up a dedicated “Defence Artificial Intelligence Council (DAIC)” at Ministry of Defence. Although India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had a Centre of “Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR)” since 1986 but we are yet to see anything productive from them. Although they tried to convert an armoured personal carrier into an unmanned platform, but only the prototype is ready and actual equipmentis far off from induction in the armed forces.There is another agency called “Defence Artificial Intelligence Project Agency (DAIPA)” but it is yet to deliver something concrete.

Irony is that India is yet to find a vision document for its Artificial Intelligence based military applications in future. The reasons are many-

    • India is long known for its red tapism and lack of accountability. Decisions are taken by politicians or bureaucrats while the end user is kept in dark most of the times. This has resulted in critical delays, cost escalations and finally developing a product which is not required by the user. Things have improved in last few years, but it is difficult to wash away the legacy of several decades.
    • Our defence PSUs have proved to be a white elephant. They have constantly been consuming significant portion of our Defence budget without delivering any significant contribution. There are numerous examples to quote.
    • We do not have a mindset of analysing our real need of defence spending. Despite of the fact that we are in a volatile zone surrounded by enemies on all sides, our per capita defence budget is among the lowest boundaries.
    • Like a typical middle-incomed mindset, India tend to spend more on subsidies, welfare measures and other freebies for the population then to spend more on the technology especially defence. Politicians call the shots who are only concerned about winning the next election. Subsidies win over the national security and that is a bitter truth.
    • Governments in the past have failed to understand the need of critical infrastructure for development of technology and hence did not work constructively in this direction. Furthermore, due to red tapism and bureaucracy- it became extremely difficult for private players to participate in development of military technology.

Despite of being the second most populated country, fifth largest economy and fourth most powerful defence force of the world, we are miles away from indigenisation of our military equipment. Lack of political vision, red tapism, absence of accountability, bureaucratic mindset and poor understanding of defence matters resulted in where we are standing now. India need to move fast in positive direction with a proper vision and achieve its goals. This is the utmost need of this hour.

India has skill, knowledge, and a large pool of experts to explore AI enabled military applications. Undoubtedly the human factor is best, but the future lies in the AI hence we have no option except to take a leap in this direction. We must learn how to invest in Military Research and Development and use the technology for our better advantage.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Amit Bansal

is a Defence Strategist with keen interests in International Affairs, Maritime Security, Terrorism and Internal Security. He is also an Author, Blogger and Poet.

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