It is just a matter of time:
“Before they were blind, deaf and dumb,” Mark Maybury, chief scientist for the U.S. Air Force, told AFP. “Now we’re beginning to make them to see, hear and sense.”
Ronald Arkin, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, believes that drones will soon be able to kill enemies on their own independently.
“It is not my belief that an unmanned system will be able to be perfectly ethical in the battlefield, but I am convinced that they can perform more ethically than human soldiers are capable of,” Arkin told AFP.
These stories make for great headlines and feed a lot of silly drone paranoia but I think they are essentially accurate. The killer drones of science fiction will become a reality but probably not on a massive scale and definitely not soon.
I think the real story and ultimate benefit is in the development of greater drone autonomy in virtually every other (non-lethal) aspect of their operation. We are not terribly far off from being able to build drones and support systems that autonomously synthesize vast amounts of battlefield intelligence, self-launch, fly to potential targets, and notify human specialists of their intent or target opportunities. We are laying the groundwork for much of that right now. However, in most cases, it will still make sense to allow that human specialist final decision making authority at the execution phase even while the mechanics of flight, targeting, and firing can be fully handled by the drone itself.
When full offensive autonomy does come I think it could initially be in an air superiority role where it is easier to envision fully autonomous drones being turned loose for tasks such as enforcing no-fly zones. That is typically a less complex set of rules than say chasing down two guys with RPGs in the middle of Baghdad. Not easy – but easier. Either way, there are countless applications for this technology and many ways that these capabilities can be implemented short of the “fully autonomous killer drones” that are so effective at capturing imaginations and headlines.