Home' Army Acquisition Logistics and Technology Magazine : Army ALT April-June 2017 Contents weapons on them, and you could call for fire with them and do
Army AL&T: In the latest “Star Trek ” movie, the Enterprise’s
nemesis had a swarming capability launching an array of net-
worked, apparently smart projectiles that ripped to shreds
anything in their path. Could you see one fighter jet team with a
swarm of much less costly unmanned jets or optionally manned
jets being more effective in aerial combat than manned jets?
Scharre: It’s possible. We just don’t know. Swarming is very
appealing because there are a couple of different paradigms.
One could be that they’re very capable, high-speed, very lethal,
survivable assets, but you network them and they’re com-
municating. They’re working together to time their attack to
overwhelm the defensive position at the same time.
One of the key concepts here is that just having a bunch of stuff
is not a swarm. That’s just a deluge of things. Swarming is about
cooperative behavior. It’s about elements that are able to work
together to a common purpose. We’re not quite there yet in
terms of our munitions. I think one of the real advantages going
forward is to take existing munitions—it might be the same
missile with just a block upgrade, adding in-flight network-
ing with human controllers so you can give in-flight targeting
updates, but also adding in-flight targeting among the muni-
tions themselves so they can communicate on targets. There are
many different ways to communicate.
Look at nature. When you look at wolves, they have complex
intrapack communication, but not when they’re on the attack.
When they’re on the attack, there’s a signal to attack by the pack
leader and then they attack. And then a lot of what they’re doing
is based on implicit communication. Wolves are watching oth-
And then you have even simpler agents like ants and bees and ter-
mites that use even simpler forms of communication. Termites
and ants communicate by leaving signals. And then another
agent comes along and sees a clue, a tag in the environment that
someone left and then reacts. So you can imagine, for example,
you’re doing sea mining operations this way, where robots go
around and they just tag things, and then others respond to
those tags and cues.
Army AL&T: How could you see this working in urban areas,
Scharre: Let’s say you want to go into a house. Right now people
storm into the house, right? Maybe you throw a flash-bang in,
and then we run in and hope that nobody shoots you. It’s super
dangerous and people get killed. Well, the technology basically
exists today to have a swarm of maybe five, 10, 15, 20 drones
go into a house, map out the house that they’ve never been into
before, all of the rooms without GPS, using visual-aided naviga-
tion and line art to map the environment, to sense objects using
things like neural network-based object detection to look for
specific individuals, look for AK-47s. Tell me where they are.
And have them look together so that they map different rooms,
to optimize coverage.
And then once you’ve mapped the environment, now you can
send people in. Let’s have a robot get shot, not a person.
Army AL&T: Any grand wish for the Army as to where it should
be in five years?
Scharre: No, I just think there are a lot of opportunities, and I
think that we want to make sure that we’re capitalizing on them
as best we can.
I remember very clearly a moment for me when it was clear that
robotics was potentially valuable. We were in Diyala province
[in eastern Iraq] in 2007-2008 during a surge, and had stopped
the convoy and were waiting on the engineers to come to defuse
an IED. And a number of them show up in a big MRAP. I’m
waiting for the engineer to come out in a bomb suit and go
defuse the bomb, and instead a full robot rolls out, and it was
like a light bulb went off. I said, “Oh, yeah, send the robots to
do the dangerous jobs.”
And that really stuck with me. However, others have access to
those opportunities as well. If the U.S. has a lead in robotics, it’s
a fragile one, and we don’t want to fall behind.
MS. MARGARET C. ROTH is an editor of Army AL&T maga-
zine. She has more than a decade of experience in writing about the
Army and more than three decades’ experience in journalism and
public relations. Roth is a Maj. Gen. Keith L. Ware Public Affairs
Award winner and a co-author of the book “Operation Just Cause:
The Storming of Panama.” She holds a B.A . in Russian language
and linguistics from the University of Virginia.
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