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GCN : January 2013
34 GCN JANUARY 2013 • GCN.COM ROBOTICS IS ONE of the fastest growing and most innovative fields in govern- ment use of technology. From NASA s X1 robot that is helping people to walk, to the Marine Corps AlphaDog that is ready to climb mountains loaded down with gear, to Wave Gliders that are helping NOAA explore climate change in the Arctic Ocean, robots are literally everywhere. But all robots manufactured so far require some form of human interaction for them to perform anything beyond basic functions. That could be changing with the Navy s new X-47BB stealth drone, which will be able to take o and land from an aircraft carrier, fly a mission and report back to operators without needing a human pilot or even some- one to watch over the whole process, according to a report in the Daily Mail. Robots, particularly military ones, have started to show signs of intelligence. The 501 Packbot, for example, can find its way back to its controller even if the radio connection is broken. But those are baby steps, and it appears that the X-47B is nearly fully grown. It s undergoing sea trials dur- ing the next several months aboard the USS Harry Tru- man, the Navy says. The ultimate goal of the project is for an operator to use something as simple as a drop-down menu and a point- and-click interface to assign the X-47B a mission. Then the aircraft can launch itself, per- form the mission, and return to base, possibly on an aircraft carrier. Whoever assigns the mission does not need to be a pilot, and doesn t even have to monitor the plane at all once the mission is assigned, although current procedure calls for a human to oversee all operations. The X-47B instead relies on a set of "senses," based on existing technology developed by Northrop Grumman to help it navigate the skies. It has accelerometers, altimeters, gyroscopes and, of course, a Global Positioning System receiver. It s also got a brain of sorts, managed by 3.5 million lines of code, to help it make decisions in the field. As robots go, the X-47B is large, 62-feet long. It weighs 14,000 pounds when empty and sits 10 feet high. It is designed in a stealth, no-tail mode and constructed of special materials to avoid enemy radar. One would think that build- ing such an intelligent robot, capable of feats such as carrier landings and making decisions during missions would be di cult to do, but NextGov re- ports that the Navy didn t run into any real challenges in the development of the aircraft. The use of autonomous drones raises concerns that they could go awry, possibly attacking something other than military targets. But the Pentagon requires that all weapons other than those designed for use in cyberspace be built to rigorous standards and have human oversight to avoid potential disasters. And the Navy stresses that the X- 47B is not carrying any weap- ons, although it could carry up to 2,000 pounds of ordnance to protect itself in the air or to kill targets on the ground. But from a technology standpoint, the more sig- nificant factor here is that the X-47B is almost a true robot, which is generally defined as a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. That means that the X-47B is probably the first real robot in military service, or at least it comes closest to the futuristic type of robots popular in sci-fi movies. That said, a lot is riding on the X-47B program. If it s successful, count on it being the first in a long line of thinking machines, whereas failure could set the program back significantly. It is rare that we can identify a turning point while it s actually hap- pening, but the X-47B going into service comes at a mo- ment whose importance can t be overstated. Everything after it will make the world a di erent place. • IS THE NAVY'S NEW DRONE THE FIRST REAL MILITARY ROBOT? BY JOHN BREEDEN II EMERGING TECH Navy X-47B stealth drone, designed to operate from an aircraft carrier, fly a mission and report back to base without human intervention. U.S. NAVY