News Article | April 17, 2015
Manned fighter jets may have a limited future. The secretary of the US Navy has announced that the new F-35 Lightning II “should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.” The Register reports that the Navy’s secretary Ray Mabus made the announcement at the Sea-Air-Space 2015 conference on Wednesday. In his speech, Mabus explained: [W]ith unmanned technology, removing a human from the machine can open up room to experiment with more risk, improve systems faster and get them to the fleet quicker. While unmanned technology itself is not new, the potential impact these systems will have on the way we operate is almost incalculable... We need to give ideas like this one a place to flourish, and that’s why, in the coming months, we will be making some pretty substantial changes to how the Department is organized to ensure the structure is in place to help incorporate this capability more fluidly into our operations. Part of that change includes the appointment of a new Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems, as well as a new office for unmanned systems in its Warfare Systems division, “ so that all aspects of unmanned – in all domains – over, on and under the sea and coming from the sea to operate on land – will be coordinated and championed,” according Mabus. He also pointed to the fact that the Navy is looked to capitalize on rapid prototyping and 3D printing technologies in the future. “The only limit to what this new technology can do for us is our imagination,” he explained, adding that “the potential for technology like this – and the fact that we can print them – make them – ourselves, almost anywhere, is incredible.” The Navy has already been experimenting with these kinds of concepts: “a group of Sailors onboard USS Essex used advanced manufacturing to create the parts for an unmanned aerial vehicle that they then built and flew,” points out Mabus, and its “Close-In Autonomous Disposable Aircraft (CICADA) can be made with a 3D printer, and is a GPS guided disposable unmanned aerial vehicle that can be deployed in large numbers.” But clearly this is just the start. Mabus wants to use technology to escape the “the tortuous, sometimes years-long acquisition process.” He’s got a point: those processes aren’t just slow and complex, they can stymie innovation and unfairly favor contractors too, leading—ultimately—to a Navy without the competitive advantage it needs. Perhaps ditching fighter pilots in favor of drones can fix that. Mabus seems to think so. [Navy Live via The Register via The Verge]
News Article | April 9, 2015
The United Nations is under pressure to ban fully autonomous before they are developed, in the form of a new report which details how a lack of regulation could cause human deaths without accountability. In a new report released by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School, the groups argue that so-called "killer robots," fully autonomous weapons able to inflict harm without operators, should be banned before they come into existence. At the moment, drones and autonomous vehicles -- ranging from sensor-laden scouts to consumer hobby drones and self-driving cars -- are being developed at a rapid pace. Companies including Amazon are harnessing the technology for delivery purposes, Google is experimenting with a fully self-driving car, and Parrot is a start-up which now offers a range of hobby drones to consumers. Considering the technology scene only a few decades ago, the possibility of these machines being taken a step further for military use is not outside the realm of possibility. While regulators are exploring different avenues for the regulation of consumer-based drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the report argues that rather than lawmakers falling into a hole where regulations are playing catch-up with technology, laws should be set in place before such technology arrives. See also: FAA to impose restrictions on commercial drone use As reported by The Guardian, the report says that under current laws, programmers, manufacturers and military personnel would all escape liability for deaths caused on the field by fully autonomous weaponry. The report, titled "Mind the Gap: The Lack of Accountability for Killer Robots," also suggests that there is not likely to be any legal framework which would clearly state where responsibility lies in the production and deployment of such weapons -- and therefore no retribution or restitution when errors occur. "Fully autonomous weapons do not yet exist, but technology is moving in their direction, and precursors are already in use or development," the report argues. "For example, many countries use weapons defense systems -- such as the Israeli Iron Dome and the US Phalanx and C-RAM -- that are programmed to respond automatically to threats from incoming munitions. In addition, prototypes exist for planes that could autonomously fly on intercontinental missions (UK Taranis) or take off and land on an aircraft carrier (US X-47B)." The controversial factor in autonomous weaponry is the lack of meaningful human control in selecting and engaging targets. By rescinding control to a machine, there is the possibility of civilians being targeted instead of military, a potential arms race to develop more sophisticated and dangerous weaponry, and "proliferation to armed forces with little regard for the law," the report suggests. "Existing mechanisms for legal accountability are ill-suited and inadequate to address the unlawful harms fully autonomous weapons might cause," the groups argue. "These weapons have the potential to commit criminal acts -- unlawful acts that would constitute a crime if done with intent -- for which no one could be held responsible. A fully autonomous weapon itself could not be found accountable for criminal acts that it might commit because it would lack intentionality." Drones and automated weaponry currently used by governments are defended as a human operator is always behind the decision to pull the trigger or not. Therefore, a person is held accountable in the case of war crimes and misuse. However, researchers from Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School believe military personnel and operators could "not be assigned direct responsibility" for the actions of a fully autonomous weapon, except in rare situations where intent to misuse such weapons can be proved. The report states: Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School recommend that the "development, production and use" of fully autonomous weapons be prohibited through an international legally binding policy, and national laws be adopted which would also prevent this type of weaponry from being created nationally. The report has been released ahead of a meeting of international officials at the UN in Geneva later this month, which will include a discussion on the regulation of emerging military technology. Read on: In the world of innovation
News Article | May 18, 2015
Dealing with a culture that sees data as something that needs to be kept close at hand, the US Navy has been slow to meet its goals in consolidating data centers and applications as part of the ongoing Federal government consolidation efforts. Despite having addressed this issue in mid-2014 with the creation of the Data Center and Application Optimization program (DCAO), the pace of change still hasn't come up to an acceptable level. Speaking at this year's Navy IT Day, John Zangardi, the Navy's deputy assistant secretary for command, control, computers, intelligence, information operations and space and acting CIO took the Navy to task for their slow rate of progress, going so far as to picking three of the worst performing data centers and singling them out for special attention for their consolidation efforts. In the next month or so the DCAO program will move from its current home, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, to its own program under the auspices of Program Executive Office-Enterprise Information Systems (PEO-EIS). Among other responsibilities the DCAO will handle establishing a working model of a cloud hosting brokerage for the Navy that will incorporate application delivery via both government and commercial entities. This central brokerage is hoped to ramp up the consolidation of data centers and services within the Nacy-centric IT. Though almost 300 systems and applications have already been consolidated across 45 of the sites that fall in this area of responsibility, the effort to get various bases and commands to move on with the consolidation has dragged on as it has hit cultural inertia in adopting new technologies that move applications and data out of the direct control of the various organizations. The biggest obstacle that will be faced by the DCAO program will continue to be this cultural one, as the technologies involved continue to be proven in operation by other branches of the DoD.
News Article | February 5, 2015
The US Navy has unveiled a prototype of its Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR). The last time we saw SAFFiR, it wasn't much more than an aluminum core and two legs, but now it looks more like the futuristic firefighting humanoid it originally promised to be. The robot is 5 feet, 10 inches tall and weighs 143 pounds "We set out to build and demonstrate a humanoid capable of mobility aboard a ship, manipulating doors and fire hoses, and equipped with sensors to see and navigate through smoke," Office of Naval Research program manager Thomas McKenna said yesterday at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology Expo. "The longterm goal is to keep sailors from the danger of direct exposure to fire." SAFFiR, which was developed by researchers at Virginia Tech, stands five-foot-10 inches tall and weighs 143 pounds. Infrared stereovision sensors and a rotating laser allow the robot to see through dense smoke. Unlike DARPA's Atlas robot, SAFFiR can't stand without a tether, but it is capable of taking measured steps and handling a fire hose. For now, those movements come at the instruction of human controllers. During a test trial in November, SAFFiR worked in conjunction with a small drone, Engadget reports. The quadcopter, DC-21, uses infrared sensors and cameras to detect fires and map out the topography of an area, which it can then communicate to the robot. The Navy is working on creating more advanced sensors for SAFFiR, as well as improving its speed, intelligence, and communication abilities. The drone's creators also plan on improving the battery life of DC-21, which currently tops out at five minutes. The ultimate goal is for SAFFiR to work in tandem with Navy officers, not replace them. "We're working toward human-robot teams," McKenna said. "It's what we call the hybrid force: humans and robots working together."
News Article | June 1, 2015
If you see a flying saucer in the sky tomorrow over Hawaii, don’t panic — it’s just NASA. At 12:30PM ET on June 2nd, NASA’s low-density supersonic decelerator (LDSD) will be tested at the US Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii. That test brings the technology a little closer to its ultimate destination: Mars. Humans have explored the Red Planet for four decades using robotic probes. In 1976, the twin Viking landers successfully touched down on the Martian surface — the first Mars landing. In 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover survived the "seven minutes of terror" known as entry, descent, and landing to successfully touch down on the Martian surface with the help of that same Viking-era parachute. That system, though reliable, is limited: it can’t support a payload of more than a ton. The technology to launch crews is currently in development, but what happens when we arrive? NASA is planning increasingly ambitious robotic missions to Mars, gearing up to a human mission in the 2030s. In preparation, the agency is constructing its next big rocket — the Space Launch System (SLS), capable of propelling its Orion spacecraft further into space than ever before. The technology to launch crews is currently in development, but what happens when we arrive? The engineering challenges are significant. Landing on Mars isn’t the same as landing on Earth, or even on the Moon. Our atmosphere is very dense; the Moon has no atmosphere at all. The Martian atmosphere is somewhere in between. That thin atmosphere means any spacecraft would need more than a parachute to land. And Mars has just enough atmosphere to rule out landing via rocket motors alone, as is done on the Moon. In order to support an eventual human mission, NASA needs technologies capable of landing between 20 to 30 metric tons on the Martian surface. The LDSD is a step in that direction: it supports payloads of two to three tons, doubling the current capabilities. NASA is betting on atmospheric drag, better known as air resistance, as a solution. Using drag for deceleration saves engines and fuel. NASA’s future Mars missions require heavy-duty planetary landers capable of delivering larger payloads and maneuvering to higher elevations. Current technology coupled with the thin Martian atmosphere make mountaintops and the high-altitude southern plains inaccessible, limiting what areas of the Red Planet we can explore. The LDSD features three different devices meant to address these problems. Two massive, donut-shaped airbags constructed out of kevlar — dubbed supersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerators (SIADs) — will inflate around the vehicle. By increasing the surface area of a vehicle such as Orion, the amount of air resistance will also increase, decelerating the spacecraft. To design the technology needed for this task, NASA turned their attention to the Hawaiian pufferfish. When frightened, the puffer fish inflates itself, intimidating potential predators. Engineers thought this same technique could be used as a means of deceleration. Rapidly inflating the SIAD would increase the surface area of any spacecraft bound for the Red Planet, and dramatically reduce its speed. These SIADs come in two different versions: the SIAD-R, which is meant for robotic missions and is 6 meters in diameter when deployed; and the larger SIAD-E, meant for human missions, which expands to 8 meters in diameter once inflated. The SIAD-E is designed to slow surface-bound vehicles, like Orion, from upwards of 2,600 mph — about three and a half time the speed of sound — to 1,400 mph in under three minutes. It's not practical to test these new technologies on Mars The final part of the LDSD system is a parachute that’s 30.5 meters in diameter — twice the size of the Viking-era parachute. Once the SIAD deploys and slows the payload to roughly 1,400 mph (Mach 2), the parachute takes over. It’s tasked with slowing the vehicle to subsonic speeds. All three devices will be the largest of their kind ever flown at supersonic speeds. Since it’s not practical to test these new technologies on Mars, researchers use the next best thing: the thin layer of Earth’s upper atmosphere known as the stratosphere. The LDSD will be tested over the Pacific Ocean, since that’s where the atmosphere most closely resembles Mars. By simulating the supersonic entry and descent speeds Orion and other vehicles will experience on Mars, engineers will have an idea of how well the LDSD technology will perform on Mars. During the test, a high-altitude helium balloon will carry the test vehicle to an altitude of 120,000 feet above the Earth’s surface. The test vehicle will then be released from the balloon, dropping a few thousand feet. Four small rocket motors will ignite, stabilizing the test vehicle through a controlled spin, before an OrbitalATK Star 48 solid rocket motor ignites, propelling the craft to an altitude of 180,000 feet and speeds of 2,880 mph. The eight meter SIAD will deploy, decelerating the spacecraft to about 1,400 mph before the parachute takes over, slowing the spacecraft to a safe speed for a water landing. In the last test, the parachute failed The first full-scale test of the LDSD system at supersonic speeds was conducted at the PMRF in Hawaii in June 2014 and featured the 6-meter SIAD-R together with the massive parachute. The parachute failed. Tomorrow’s test will feature an improved parachute design. Will the new design hold up to the initial rush of supersonic wind? Or will the team recover another shredded chute? Regardless of the results, we can expect some amazing views from the onboard cameras.