Honey Bees and Drones

There are some interesting stories relating to the LOCUST program, which I wrote about the other day.  There is a project run by researchers from the Universities of Sheffield and Sussex in the UK that are attempting to recreate the honey bee brain and use that information to automatically pilot a drone.  In the video below, a UAS used the checkerboard pattern to aid in navigation with an early version of a honey bee brain.  You can find out more about the “Green Brain Project” at the group’s website, and the image credit above goes to them.

Separately, Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, head of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico wants to develop the ability for multiple UAS to work together without relying on the RF spectrum and its inherent unreliabilities (hacking, weather, etc).  He is looking at termites, who use pheromones to work together, for inspiration.  “Without communicating they sense the environment change around them, and they instinctively know which way to go.”

The technical side of this is fascinating, but on the other hand it sounds a bit Orwellian and conjures images of Terminator to those of us who have seen it. So where do we find the right balance? The Center for a New American Century’s “Project on Ethical Autonomy” has published MEANINGFUL HUMAN CONTROL in WEAPON SYSTEMS: A Primer, by Michael C. Horowitz and Paul Scharre.  The White Paper discusses the concept of “meaningful human control” of weapons systems, how that concept is implemented in manned systems, and broaches the issue in relation to unmanned systems.

The Project notes that the U.S. is one of the few countries with guidance currently in place, which is found in  Autonomy in Weapons Systems (Department of Defense Directive 3000.09, dtd Nov 21, 2012).  In short, it requires that “autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force” and “complete engagements in a timeframe consistent with commander and operator intentions and, if unable to do so, terminate engagements or seek additional human operator input before continuing the engagement.”  It is signed by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (now Secretary of Defense).

I think it would be interesting to understand how a bee’s mind works and apply that to UAS, but I firmly agree that rational human decision-making, and accountability, need to be responsible for the ultimate actions of the system – specifically use use of force and other defined mission goals.  The policy is a good first step, but the Project on Ethical Autonomy and others like it will help put meat on the bone of the basic DoD policy and hopefully work toward internationally recognized rules of unmanned warfare.

To finish on a light note, I have a video below.  I’m not a South Park fan, so I’m admittedly behind on this one.  The clip certainly touches on a perception among portions of the public, but it is amusing.  As is another South Park clip, which is borderline-NSFW, depending upon your workplace.

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