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Unmanned Systems’ Future Lies in Autonomy

Smart autonomous systems will leverage brains over brawn

In the face of the most draconian U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) budget cuts in at least a generation, affordability has become a new watchword, perhaps the new watchword. While the program manager’s “three-legged stool” of cost, schedule, and performance will, and must, always remain intact, clearly, in today’s fiscal environment, cost is a compelling first among equals.

 

The Grand Challenge for Unmanned Systems Autonomy

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of unmanned – or, more properly,  autonomous – systems (called UxS for brevity). For these systems, well and truly, are not unmanned, rather, the man has been taken out of the machine and put on the ground, in a command center, on the ship, or elsewhere. As The Economist noted in October 2011, “Even calling them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) is slightly misleading. There may not be a man in the cockpit, but each Reaper, a bigger, deadlier version of the Predator, requires more than 80 people to keep it flying.” That in a nutshell is the issue, and one that is the grand challenge for the future of these technological marvels.

RAF Officer Leads MQ-1 Predator Operations

Royal Air Force Maj. Kevin Gambold monitors and pilots an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle while being marshaled in after a mission for the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, Creech Air Force Base, Nev. To Contain costs, the author argues the “one amn, one stick, one vehicle” paradigm must change. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder

For DoD, the sheer scope of autonomous systems – air, ground, surface, and subsurface – has caused the department to issue sequential “Unmanned Systems Roadmaps,” which, if nothing else, catalogue the various types of autonomous systems fielded and under development by the services. This 25-year projection is used by government and industry alike as the definitive guidance for DoD’s multibillion-dollar investment in the scores of autonomous systems it either has fielded today or intends to field in the future.

While there are many ways for the scores of program managers and thousands of acquisition professionals to keep the costs of autonomous systems in check, unless or until they focus more on the “brains” and less on the “brawn” of autonomous systems, their ability to do this may be limited, if not severely proscribed. To make these UxS systems truly affordable, they will need to not only take the man out of the platform, but, to the greatest extent possible, take the man (or woman) out of the equation.

The most recent roadmap, the “Unmanned Systems Roadmap FY 2011-2036,” co-signed by DoD Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., USN, is extraordinarily directive regarding the costs of these systems when it states, “Affordability will be treated as a key performance parameter equal to, if not more important than, schedule and technical performance.” This affordability theme builds on a September 2010 memo written by then-DoD Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Ashton Carter, where he stated, “Specifically, at milestone A, my acquisition decision memorandum (ADM) approving formal commencement of the program will contain an affordability target to be treated by the program manager (PM) like a key performance parameter (KPP) such as speed, power, or data rate – i.e., a design parameter not to be sacrificed or compromised without my specific authority.”

With such clear-cut and direct guidance from DoD, one would think program managers would be on a glideslope to make these autonomous systems as affordable as possible. While the will is there, they are continuously challenged by the “wicked problem” of trying to do so. Dyke Weatherington, the Pentagon’s deputy director of unmanned warfare, addressed this challenge, noting that, where necessary, DoD would cut capability out of UAS programs to bring the program down to cost targets.

While there are many ways for the scores of program managers and thousands of acquisition professionals to keep the costs of autonomous systems in check, unless or until they focus more on the “brains” and less on the “brawn” of autonomous systems, their ability to do this may be limited, if not severely proscribed. To make these UxS systems truly affordable, they will need to not only take the man out of the platform, but, to the greatest extent possible, take the man (or woman) out of the equation.

 

The Past Is Prologue: Coming Full Circle

One only has to read a few lines of defense media reports of autonomous systems development or industry advertisements regarding a particular air, ground, surface, or subsurface UxS to come away with the impression that autonomous systems represent completely new technology, an artifact of the 21st century or perhaps the late 20th century. But in fact, autonomous systems have been around for more than a century.

As with the use of autonomous systems today in Iraq and Afghanistan, autonomous aerial systems have led the way over most of the past century of UxS development, and the exigencies of wartime have spurred rapid development of these systems. A large part of the motivation is clear; these UAS (often called drones) can go where it might be too hazardous to risk a pilot in a manned platform.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...