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The DoD opens up to social networking March 2, 2010

Posted by emiliekopp in Uncategorized.
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For any of you who know me personally, social media technology is a passion of mine. Combine that with my passion for robotics and voila! the creation of the LabVIEW Robotics blog.

In the past weeks, I’ve talked a lot about the DoD and their plans for developing unmanned systems. This week, let’s talk about the DoD’s usage of social media. Specifically, I was surprised to hear that the DoD has loosened its policy on social media usage by its employees and soldiers.

Previously, some sectors of the DoD had outright banned participation on certain social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Understandably, the idea of soldiers on the front lines, tweeting and blogging about their experience or about confidential information, made the DoD a bit timid. However, the DoD now appreciates how social media tools could actually be beneficial and understands that it’s a matter of educating their employees on safe, appropriate usage.

The DoD even goes so far as to encourage usage:

Service members and DoD employees are welcome and encouraged to use new media to communicate with family and friends — at home stations or deployed — but it’s important to do it safely. Keep in mind that everyone has a responsibility to protect themselves and their information online, and existing regulations on ethics, operational security, and privacy still apply.  Be sure never to post any information that could be considered classified, sensitive, or that might put military members or families in danger.

I’m impressed to find that the DoD shared this new information on, fittingly, a blog! (The DoD Social Media Hub) And, they embedded the policy memorandum on their blog post using SlideShare. Well done! Way to leverage social media technologies to get the word out.


Its a bird, its a plane, its a UAV February 17, 2010

Posted by emiliekopp in industry robot spotlight.
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In a face-off between UAV vs. UGV vs. UMV, i.e. aerial vs. ground vs. maritime robot, who would win? If we go by shear volume of what’s currently deployed in action, unmanned aerial vehicles take the cake. I recently calculated that DoD spending on research and development for UAVs is 2.5-times its investment in UGV-related R&D, and 15-times its investment in UMVs. (source: FY2009-2034 Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap: President’s Budget for Unmanned Systems).

With more eyes in the skies, UAV developers have seen some recent success. For instance, the US Marine Corps recently completed its first successful demonstration of its new robocopter, a helicopter that was gutted and retrofitted to become a UAV. What’s particularly impressive is that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill unmanned vehicle; there’s no hands on control necessary. A flight operator specifies the flight path and then the helicopter autonomously navigates itself to its destination. And the fact that its a helicopter helps address difficulties encountered when delivering supplies or aid to soldiers in particularly rugged terrain. This Popular Science article has more info on the application.

Another recent success: a UAV in the UK has made the first flying drone arrest. Suspects of a stolen vehicle had been evading police during chase thanks to a thick heavy fog. So police called in the help of a UAV and utilized its thermal imaging to identify the body heat and locate the hiding suspects in a nearby ditch. More info here.

Kind of creepy but still very cool.

Ethics of Military Robots February 10, 2010

Posted by emiliekopp in industry robot spotlight.
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I recently became familiar with the DoD’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, a document that forecasts the evolution and adoption of robot technologies in modern warfare. For a government document, it was actually a pretty interesting read.

Many people are timid when discussing military robots, and justifiably so. While most of the robots are meant to perform tasks that are simply too dull, dirty or dangerous to warrant the risk of human life (for instance, MULE robots or robots that dispose of IEDs), most of the mainstream media attention is geared towards the robots with guns. And that’s when the references to Skynet come rolling in.

What happens when robots have guns? If something goes wrong, who is ultimately held responsible? The robot? The operator? The designer? The supplier of electromechanical parts? The chain of responsible parties could go on and on.

So we haven’t found the answer. But initiating the conversations is an good start.

P.W. Singer’s Wired for War has brought the conversation to the mainstream. The main point Singer addresses is that once you begin to move humans away from the battlefield (i.e give the guns to robots), they become more willing to use force. So as you reduce the risk of human life on one side, you become more willing to shed human life on the other. Understandably scary.

Another resource I found incredibly interesting is a report prepared for the US Department of Navy’s Office of Naval Research by California Polytechnic State University: Autonomous Military Robotics: Risk, Ethics, and Design. This report takes a more technical approach to understanding the ethics behind robots in the battlefield. While it addresses many of the concerns that Singer has brought to light, it also entertains the point that robots are “unaffected by the emotions, adrenaline, and stress that cause soldiers to overreact or deliberately overstep the Rules of Engagement and commit atrocities, that is to say, war crimes.” Of course, this assumes that humans are capable of programming robots to make ethically sound decisions on their own, which in turn warrants a walk down memory lane with Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics.

Bottom line: technology is a double-edged sword (thank you, Ray Kurzweil). There will be pro’s and con’s to exponentially-advancing technologies, especially with battlefield robots. Yet, we shouldn’t feel like we need to tip toe around the issue. The more we talk about it, the better equipped we’ll be when decisions must be made.