The rise of the robo-fighters: Britain’s new pilotless air force *

Daily Mail
03.05.2010
By Rob Waugh

The Mantis can fly for 24 hours without refuelling, do the surveillance job of four helicopters, acquire its own enemy targets and deliver a deadly payload - all without a pilot and crew. But should we be afraid of Britain’s new robotic air force?

The aircraft is the size of a medium range bomber, with huge grey wings stretching 70ft across the hangar. It looks for all the world like any conventional aircraft - the wings, the nose, the wheels are all familiar. The engineers standing in front of it are dwarfed by its bulk. Modules beneath the wings can carry air-to-ground missiles and precision-guided bombs.

Other racks on the nose can carry surveillance equipment so advanced it can decrypt and listen to mobile phone messages instantly as it flies over, at heights of up to 60,000ft. It takes a while for you to notice the most important fact - there is no cockpit. There are no windows anywhere on the craft, - and no doors.

The Mantis carries no human crew - one of the reasons it can stay airborne for 24 hours. The plane is controlled by a set of computer components not that far removed from the chips and boards inside a high-end personal laptop. But unlike the American Predator and Reaper drones now flying over Afghanistan and Pakistan, this isn’t flown by pilots via satellite control from a bunker outside Las Vegas. It flies itself.

The aircraft is sitting in the hangars of BAE Systems, just outside Preston - next to an airfield where Eurofighters are shooting vertically upwards from a take-off strip. The site is vast, with limousines ferrying suited executives from one part to another, and visitors carefully shepherded only into the areas they are cleared to see.

To enter Mantis’s hangar, you have to pass through a glass cubicle that scans for any transmitting equipment - phones and cameras are strictly forbidden. A recording suddenly blares, ‘Mobile phone detected!’ as one of my hosts remembers he has a BlackBerry in his coat. I’m allowed to see Mantis, but not to know where the aircraft is currently flying.

Mantis isn’t a ‘drone’. It’s a robotic aircraft. It’s among the first of a new breed of armed UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that can take off, fly, plot courses and even acquire targets for itself, and the UK is at the forefront of this new technology. The Mantis only needs human beings for one thing - to pull the trigger.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - with their political pressure for low casualties - have caused an explosion in demand for craft that need less and less human input. The spectacle of captured pilots was a staple of the first Iraq war and other conflicts around the Middle East. It’s a vision that has been absent from the news this time round for one simple reason: there are now fewer pilots.

Laptop parts, satellite connections and software are doing it instead. There are now 12,000 UAVs, used for everything from surveillance to search and destroy missions. In less than a decade, the business of unmanned aircraft has gone from being a minor, specialist sector to being worth £9 billion.

In the training missions that BAE is allowed to discuss with me, Mantis takes off entirely independent of its crew. When airborne, it is controlled either from a base in the UK or from a command-and-control centre so tiny that it fits inside a packing crate, which can be flown to a combat theatre inside a transport aircraft, with a commander and crew ready to deploy.

A satellite relays information to the Mantis, while pictures, video feeds, infrared images and decrypted phone calls come back from the battlefield. Six screens back on the ground offer a Mantis-eye view, a map and a set of geometric patterns showing the Mantis’s orders.

Previous generations of surveillance craft deluge intelligence staff with so many pictures that up to 160 back-room staff are required for each aircraft, but Mantis decides for itself what is interesting. A single Mantis can do the surveillance job of three or four helicopters or three Nimrod jet crews.

While it’s in flight, no one controls Mantis with a joystick. Details of the mission are copied on to a memory stick and loaded into the control system’s computers by the commander. In training two Mantis operatives can oversee up to three aircraft at once.

A video of BAE’s software in action shows the aircraft targeting a line of trucks from miles above the Australian outback, with squares appearing over vehicles showing that they are objects of interest while Mantis flies over to investigate. The software inside Mantis has decided that they are moving, that they are in an area they shouldn’t be and that they match its criteria for further investigation.

Until now, the British Army has relied on American and Israeli drones, but Mantis is home-grown technology. In just four years the Mantis family of aircraft has gone from laptop components strapped to a second-hand glider bought in Wolverhampton to an operational spy plane due to enter full service in 2015.

The process has cost £124 million, and development has been spread across a team of British companies, including Rolls-Royce and QinetiQ, and British universities, such as Loughborough. At least two Mantis planes are being tested in the air right now over combat zones, although BAE is not allowed to say where. Other drone companies such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are making their own autonomous versions - but none can match demand.

Although drones are widely used, air forces tend to be nervous about letting them fly under their own steam - so highly trained pilots are still used, with a full back-up staff to ensure that nothing goes wrong.

‘The human role isn’t disappearing, but it is changing,’ says PW Singer, a former Pentagon weapons adviser and author of Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution And Conflict In The Twenty First Century, ‘Humans are no longer making decisions in the here and now; rather, they are simply supervising.’

In the U.S., more drone pilots are now being trained than actual pilots - and the degree of autonomy exhibited by the aircraft has increased to the point that new controllers don’t even need to know how to fly. Many are videogamers, more than ready for the dehumanised, computer-assisted world of drones.

‘People have an inherent fear of autonomous aircrafts, but as we face technical and battlefield problems, the solution is more and more autonomy,’ says Singer.

‘One of the problems right now is that unmanned systems such as Predator are gathering enormous amounts of data. We’re about to add “Gorgon Stare” to Predators - an array of 12 video feeds. We can’t keep up, but give the sensors more autonomy and they will decide what they send. A lot of the scientists told me that robotics is a revolutionary technology on a par with gunpowder and the atomic bomb. It’s another genie you couldn’t put back in the bottle.’

The BAE Mantis isn’t the only unmanned aircraft that can operate independently. Global Hawk RQ-4, made by Northrop Grumman, is a huge, high-altitude craft that has been flying over Afghanistan for a decade, and has no need for pilots, either in the air or on the ground. It was the first unmanned vehicle capable of flying itself, and has completed more than 30,000 combat hours overseas. Its makers seem offended by the use of the word ‘drone’ and refer to it as a ‘robotic aircraft’.

Autonomy is far more ubiquitous than people think, but it brings with it problems and dangers. The AEGIS shipboard computer used on board American destroyers controls their anti-missile systems. It works so quickly that operators simply tell it whether to shoot fighters or bombers first when the ship comes under attack - the ship then acquires targets and shoots on its own. It was an AEGIS system that had been left in attack mode that shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988. The system had mistakenly identified it as an enemy fighter.

But while mistakes of that magnitude are rare, a report, The Year Of The Drone, by the New America Foundation, an American non-profit think tank, has analysed drone strikes against militants in Pakistan and has found that the level of civilian casualties was such that it undermined any claims of drones being ‘precision’ weapons. The use of weaponised drones might have reduced the number of captured pilots - but their capacity to strike precisely is questionable.

‘Our research shows that some two-thirds of those killed in the strikes since 2004 have been described as militants, implying a civilian casualty rate of about one-third,’ says the foundation’s Katherine Tiedemann.

Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Executions, alleges that the use of drones over states such as Pakistan, with which the US has not declared war, ‘might violate international humanitarian law and international human rights law’.

President Obama’s State Department legal adviser Harold Koh replied to Alston’s allegations saying, ‘Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust, and advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting even more precise.’

Earlier this month, a drone strike on Boya village, in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, killed between three and five Al-Qaeda militants, according to reports, but also up to 13 civilians. Human Rights Watch is trying to open debate on the use of the weapons in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The statistics in The Year Of The Drone allege that more than 400 civilians have been killed by drones in Pakistan in just one year - and its authors allege that the U.S. government is not open about the casualties.

‘The closest a government official has come to publicly recognising the civilian casualties is an anonymous quote suggesting that only 20 civilians have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan in the last two years,’ says Tiedemann. But still the drive among the West’s armies is to allow not more control over UAVs, but less.

Boeing, like BAE, is already developing unmanned aircraft that will go well beyond its current roles of surveillance and attacking ground troops. Boeing and BAE’s unmanned planes look and operate like stealth bombers - a role in which communication with the outside world is likely to give away a plane’s decision.

At BAE the black, triangular shape of Tanaris looks instantly familiar - it’s almost identical to the American B-2 stealth bomber. It’s a UAV designed for a different kind of warfare - not against tribesmen armed with AK-47s but against modern nations equipped with radar, satellites and electronic counter-measures. To maintain full stealth cover, it is capable of severing communications with its handlers and travelling without radio contact for up to 36 hours.

‘The American military research organisation Darpa has put out a contract called Vulture looking for a solar-powered UAV that can remain airborne for five years. On the more micro scale, UAVs will have a role flying in and out of buildings. They’ll also continue to become more autonomous. “Drone” makes it sound quite friendly and politically digestible. These aren’t drones. They’re hunter-killers. Other systems in development might work as “swarms”, communicating with one another to carry out the mission.

‘That’s the worry - they make the decisions. What are these decisions? If it’s against the enemy, it’s fine - but what happens if it decides that I’m the enemy?’

Full article


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