Military Robots: No Reason to Freak Out

As a robotic warfare veteran, there are three common misperceptions about the use of robots in warfare that I’d like to address.

Misperception #1: There is some sort of ethical quandary or challenge in using robotic weapons.

There is no controversy about the legality or ethics of current and contemplated robotic weapons. The controversy is manufactured.   There are legitimate concerns about the ethics of the campaigns these weapons are used in.  Western law and ethics tell us that necessity (a true and ethical need to attack a target), proportionality (minimizing unnecessary destruction), and discrimination (minimizing the destruction targets that are prohibited or non-combatant) are all required for legal and moral use of force.  Despite the ceaseless talk of civilian casualties, robots and drones enable unprecedented proportionality and discrimination.  The statistical record of even the most controversial program shows that these systems are among the most precise and humane weapons in history.

An RQ-7B "Shadow" unmanned aircraft from the author's unit exhibiting icing from operations in Afghanistan.

An RQ-7B “Shadow” unmanned aircraft from the author’s unit exhibiting icing from operations in Afghanistan.

Having seen the war in Afghanistan, I am sympathetic to the idea that the United States has gone too far in the Global War on Terror.  However, resorting to debate over the means obscures the real question we face as a democracy: Should we be engaged in this war at all?  If we decide that we should be engaged in war, robotic weapons represent a huge improvement in almost all ways over 19 year olds with automatic weapons.

I saw first-hand how horrible this path is.  When troops of the 82nd Airborne Division (one of the most elite in the U.S. Army) came to relieve my brigade, the first thing they did was shoot a farmer because he was “armed” with a shovel.  I could go on about the pregnant women, families, and the doctors shot at by convoys and check points, the botched raids by uber-elite units… Let us not delude ourselves: no matter how it is conducted, war is a horrible, disgusting business.  If the alternative to war is so horrible that a war is justified, our values demand that we conduct war with most proportionality and discrimination that we muster.  With a drone strike, the decisions are being made with better intelligence, certainty of review, in places removed from the fear and chaos of a firefight, and in accordance with procedures.  So much so that lawyers literally stand with the commanders ordering a drone strike to review it before it happens.

Misperception #2: Drones and robots will change the way that militaries relate to societies.

Some inventions change the way that militaries and societies relate by changing who is in charge and how society will be managed.  For example, the Phalanx allowed the first rise of democratic society, the mounted knight enforced feudalism, and electronic and atomic weapons required the creation of the bureaucratic state.   Other inventions change warfare for soldiers but do not affect how the military relates to society.  Britannia ruled the seas under both sail and steam, and the flintlock was replaced by the percussion cap, but societies didn’t have to evolve as a result.  The entry of robotics into warfare will likely not change the relation of militaries to societies.  Robotics are a natural growth of and response to precision weapons. The same classes of people and similar organizations are needed for both robotic and precision weapons systems.  Military robotics are the next stage of development for weapons we’ve had for the whole electronic age.  If the surveillance state becomes a reality, it will be cellphones – not drones – that bring it about.

Misperception #3: Military organizations will continue on as before with robotic weapons

Lost in the sound and fury about drones is an understanding of their true nature for the military.  The value of a military drone is not in weapons, hours of endurance, or even keeping pilots out of harm’s way.  The value is in giving the commander and his staff the most information-privileged position on the battlefield.  Especially on the fast-moving, post-WWI, mechanized battlefield, commanders had to be close to the main effort to make the best decisions.  Forces were positioned and organized to support the maneuver of the main effort.

Contemporary technology, particularly networks and robotics, pushes the military in other directions.  Information is most available at network hubs where information from multiple sources can be fused by a staff.  Forces are spread out to guard and support dispersed operations.  Smaller groups and smaller platforms are more capable when used in conjunction with supporting networks.  Even services that have used drones and robots extensively have not found the optimum model for organizing and supervising the systems they will need on the battlefield of the future.  The political and budgetary systems that oversee the military have not grasped how resources need to be allocated to make the forces of the future.

Even the Navy Has Market Risk (they just call it something else)

My long awaited article in Proceedings just came out!  You might not have been waiting for it, but I have!  I started the article over a year ago.   It was a slog.  I can’t quite believe that I’m now signing up to publish an academic paper on the capital structure of robotics companies.

Image Credit: DTIC

In summary, the U.S. Navy is making a terrible mistake in it unmanned maritime vehicle policy.  The Navy is basically designing all their programs for robots that swim in the water to fail.  The technology exists today to make really cool, useful maritime robots.  However, the technology does not exist today to build the Navy’s dream robots.  (Especially since the Navy’s secret dream is to need more manned ships of the type we have today.)  Essentially, the Navy is pulling the equivalent of refusing to look at Roomba because it is not Rosie.

I’ll try and expand upon some of the key ideas from the paper over the next couple of weeks.  Readers of this blog will be familiar with the core ideas which have been translated from business to military jargon.  The Navy has to figure out what it needs its robots to do and the ecosystem around them at the same time that it is working on building the systems.  That’s what we in business call market risk!  The Navy needs to take some steps to reduce that risk.  Although the defense acquisition process stacks the deck against the Navy and it has some truly heroic individuals working on the problem, as an institution, the Navy really isn’t putting forth an adequate showing considering we’re talking about the institution’s future.

As a patriotic citizen of the United States–and as someone who understands that the U.S. Navy as much any institution on the planet has guaranteed an era of global trade, peace, and freedom–I really want our Navy to have a bright future.  Everyone who studies the naval budget–horses and bayonets snark aside–knows that the Navy isn’t on a sustainable path.  Robotics offer the Navy a future even brighter than the past.  To have this future, the Navy will have to learn how to manage and implement this technology.  It won’t be easy, but there are solid principles for doing this.

P.S.

Also, readers, I want to thank you.  Thank you for being patient with a terrible layout, a casual tone, mixed quantitative/qualitative arguments, poor citation, and irregular tables. I do want you to know that you are reading a blog whose underlying ideas are good enough to go through peer review.  I, for one, commend you for that.  I hope that the ideas have a practical impact in advancing robotics that improve the world.  Now, stop indulging my self-congratulation and get back to putting more robots into the world!

Do you know anyone thinking about the future of aviation?

If you do, please make an introduction for me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of aviation lately.  I’m trying to write a major piece for Patrick Egan at sUAS News and also thinking about this for reasons related to my business.  I’m not sure that we in the unmanned aviation community have done enough to think about what the future of the aviation industry is like.  Clayton Christensen’s Seeing What’s Next has a great discussion of disruption in aviation, but even though it was written in 2004, it makes nary a mention of unmanned aircraft.  Steve Morris at MLB Company also was kind enough to have lunch with me last week and talk about what he sees coming.

Photo Credit: DARPA / DTIC.mil

Hypothesized Developments in Aviation from Unmanned Aircraft:

-Aircraft building, particularly on the low end will approach a commodity industry more analogous to PCs or cellphones than current aircraft building paradigms.

-Unmanned aircraft companies (both builders and operators) are going to look more like software or networking companies than they are going to look like industrial companies, this has implications for both human resource practices and the capital structure of the companies.

-Scheduling, routing, and planning will be done according to the new paradigm.  Currently in aviation, everything is optimized around getting the most out of any particular flight hour or unit of plane time.  Unmanned flips this on its head and allows for the aircraft to be treated like other tools that wait on the main job.  Don’t know when you’ll need the plane up?  That’s okay, we’ll park it in the sky (maybe doing a lower value mission) until you need it.  Want to go from point A to B?  Great we’ll take you there, directly, when you want to go.  We will not worry about crew duty cycles, hubs, or returning the plane to its home base.

-Large airports will loose their centrality to the system–this is not to say they will experience a decline in traffic, but rather, they will not be the key limits on a network-like system of small airfields and ad hoc landing or operating sites (think more like a heliport than an airport).

Predicted Market Effects:

-Differentiation and customization will likely become the norm in unmanned aircraft operations.  Most airlines are pretty undifferentiated, but when the business customer is going to tie their ERP system to their aerial service provider’s dispatch system and automatically task aerial missions based on orders, sustained relationships and differentiated services are going to be much more meaningful.

-Data gathering / reconnaissance is likely to switch almost entirely to unmanned systems after the FAA changes the rules.

-Air Cargo is going to be significantly changed, mostly at the interface between trucking and air, with more work being done by air and less by trucking.

-In the long run personalized aviation, whether that is passenger aviation or other types of aviation consumption is going to be the big development.  Aircraft of today are like mainframes of the 70’s.  Only anointed experts who get to go into the restricted area can operate these machines.  Unmanned aircraft are going to be like PC’s, so cheap and easy to use that anyone can have one.  The possibilities here are quite remarkable.  Data collection, aerial work, cargo, and passenger transport are likely to feel the effects of this shift.

-Long haul, passenger, mass transportation will be the last segment to be effected.  The first segments to be effected will be small, light-weight, short duration applications.

So what else?  

I don’t really have a clear idea of how this effects incumbents.  It will definitely be change.  On the one hand, I think that the big guys at the top of the market will be fine.  I don’t expect Boeing or the airlines to disappear.  On the other hand, I don’t think that axis will have the control over aviation that they do today.  They will be more like bus companies and builders in the large automotive industry.

The cult of the pilot will be diminished (as it already is in military aviation) and air travel will continue to be democratized.  I believe that we are witnessing something akin to the introduction of the automobile.  Prior to the automobile, mechanized transportation had been too expensive and hard to use for anyone that was not an expert.  Prior to aerial automation, aircraft were too expensive and hard to use for anyone but an expert.  That’s changing, if we can hurry up the FAA, we have an amazing industrial explosion ahead of us.

Before we can even have a bubble in robotics…

Our industry needs a better methodology for managing robotics development.

I just a had a great entrepreneurship conversation.  My entrepreneur friend opened my eyes to the possibilities for robotics in an industry, platform space, and application that I had pretty much written off.  The application was using robots to collect data–the simplest and earliest task for any class of robots.  He had taken a fresh look at an industry he knew intimately and seen that there was an opportunity to do something extraordinary and make some money.

This friend is not a robotics expert, but he’s been awakened to the potential in the robotics field.  His big concern and great hesitancy to  jumping into this business is establishing a workable business model.  He sees the potential in the opportunity with the vividness of an insider, but when it comes to the robotics he could use, he sees the immature, expensive junk of an outsider’s eye.  He’s vividly aware of the danger he might not structure the business or implement the technology in such a way as to be the guy who becomes profitable and grows first.  He saw that it would take a lot of money and time just to prove out the concept and that it might take much longer to figure out the right business model.  Meanwhile, his fledgling robotics company would be burning cash at the combined rate of a software, hardware, and an operations company with a direct sales force–not a very pretty proposition.

I didn’t really have anything to say to him on that front other than hackneyed cliches about iterating, pivoting, and the value of moving early.  It really occurs to me that my friend is already following what little we know about how to build a robotics company.  Be a great whatever-you-are first (medical device, logistics solution, toy, etc.) then have it be a robot.   Don’t market the thing as a robot; market it as a new technology solution to a real problem that is worth money to solve.  Be willing it iterate (fail on first attempts).  Go to market with the least capability that you can get paid any money at all for.   All great principles, but it seems like we’re still missing the kind of prescriptions that have developed for software.

The Lean Start-up movement, combined with movements like Agile Development have brought much more rigor to how software development in early stage companies is managed.  More traditional software and engineer models are still applicable to projects where the desired outcome is well known.  In most of my conversations with engineers, it seems like robotics engineering has not reached a similar stage of maturity.  It is difficult for robotics engineers to communicate to business leaders when they will know something that allows for opportunities in business decision making, let alone accurately forecast the true cost of a development job.

The most successful robotics companies do a great job managing development.  However, when you talk to their founders or engineering leads, they are often at a loss to explain what they did differently from failed efforts.  They might explain how they avoided some basic pitfalls–like outsourcing design work–but they often have a very difficult time offering an affirmative description of what they did, why it worked, and how they kept the engineering process and the business on track towards the correct goal.  If robotics is ever going to be the semi-conductors of the 80’s, web of the 90’s, or social and mobile of today, our industry will need to develop a compelling description of how to stay on track towards successful technology and business outcomes.