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Warning sounded over British dogfighting drone

Sporting a gaping air intake in place of a cockpit, the UK's first uncrewed fighter aircraft was unveiled at an airfield in Warton, Lancashire, today.

Called Taranis, the wedge-shaped, 8-tonne stealth jet will be able to fly regular drone missions in regions of conflict – but it will also be able to seek and destroy enemy aircraft in dogfights. However, the high degree of autonomy promised by the makers has some observers concerned that the aircraft may decide on its own what constitutes a target.

Taranis is the UK government's response to the dominance of US technology in the uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) market, where aircraft such as the General Atomics Predator reign supreme. Taranis is the outcome of a 2006 Ministry of Defence decision to develop and fly an uncrewed plane that goes one better than the US systems by using a customised Rolls Royce jet engine rather than a propeller. The result is a fast, highly manoeuvrable fighter jet.

Today, the Ministry of Defence and the UK-based military technology company BAE Systems unveiled the fruits of that development in a high-security roll-out of their Uncrewed Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV). But after reading pre-launch information one expert has raised concerns about the technology.

Ahead of the game

"Taranis looks set to put the UK ahead of the game in UCAVs," says Noel Sharkey, a robotics engineer specialising in the autonomous military systems at the University of Sheffield in the UK.

"But warning bells ring for me when they talk about Taranis being 'a fully autonomous intelligent system' together with applications in 'deep missions' and having a 'deep target attack' capability."

Sharkey says that "deep mission" is military speak for "beyond the reach of a remote pilot". "We need to know if this means the robot planes will chose their own targets and destroy them – because they certainly will not have the intelligence to discriminate between civilians and combatants."

The mine clearance charity Landmine Action, based in London, has already expressed its concerns that creeping autonomy in military technology is creating robots that are capable of deciding for themselves what constitutes a target – making them as indiscriminate as a landmine.

Gerald Howarth, the UK minister for international security strategy, says that Taranis will use minimal human intervention but can be remotely piloted at any time.

When asked whether Taranis and later UCAVs based on its technology would ever make their own targeting decisions, air chief marshal Simon Bryant of the UK's Royal Air Force said: "This is a very sensitive area we are paying a lot of attention to."

He thinks worries like those expressed by Sharkey are unfounded. "We do need to understand where autonomy will be bounded in the future. But for strategic effect we will always have a man in the loop – we cannot afford to do otherwise."

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Comments 1 | 2

Why Not

Mon Jul 12 17:40:42 BST 2010 by George Brooke

Why not ... just let the robots fight it out and charge a fee for humans to watch! Michael Frayn with his "The Tin Men" dealt with this back in 1970.


Mon Jul 12 20:39:08 BST 2010 by Joel


Landmine Action's Statement Is Wrong

Mon Jul 12 22:23:29 BST 2010 by Karl

Creating robots that decide for themselves what constitutes a target does not make them indiscriminate killers. All it does is put them in charge of the discriminating.

And Joel's right, that thing looks way cool.

Comments 1 | 2

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Licensed to kill? (Image: BAE Systems)

Licensed to kill? (Image: BAE Systems)


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