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Russia Has Built a Drone that Can Think

Written by on Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

As great as drones are, they’re just machines. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “A computer is only as smart as its user.” Well, the same applies here. Drones (the automated kind, not the remotely-controlled kind) can’t ever do anything that isn’t part of their program. If a drone is flying over an area and there’s a building that isn’t on the drone’s map, then that building may as well be invisible.

That’s one of the major flaws of drone technology that’s giving pilots a fighting chance in the world or military aviation. Drones may be able to fly for days on end without stopping, but  human pilots are able to make decisions. They can observe the changing conditions on a battlefield, change their plan of attack, and react accordingly.

Russian engineers claim to have built the equivalent of a pilot AI. Don’t read too much into it — they haven’t created anything that can fully replace an experienced pilot. What they have done, however, is create a piece of drone technology that will allow drones to observe, think, react, and change based on the circumstances. Yevgeny Andriyevsky of the Luch designer bureau, the group that developed this technology, said “Drones fitted with such a system can do what none of the existing analogues is able to do. They can fly at the lowest possible altitudes over zones with tall buildings and over rugged terrain of which there are no reliable maps and where a flight planning error might lead to the loss of the plane.”

This technology, which is currently being called “technical vision” until the military inevitably comes up with a clever acronym for it, is little more than a metal box with a camera poking out of it. The device observes the battlefield and makes corrections based on perceived threats, which includes buildings or geographical where to buy antibiotics online features that aren’t part of the drone’s GPS-guided picture of the battlefield.

Technical vision couldn’t have come at a better time. Now more than ever, urban environments are the settings for military conflicts, and many cities are undergoing rapid topographical change. Andriyevsky explained, “These include all kinds of emergencies when there is no time to obtain the electronic map of a certain area, or there are no reliable maps, for as you know, cartographic data becomes outdated pretty soon. Our drones can be used by the Interior Ministry over fast-expanding urban areas, as for example Moscow or St. Petersburg where high-rise construction proceeds at so rapid a pace that maps are unable to catch up with it.”

Now, I don’t want to stray too far off the topic into the realm of science fiction. This technology is certainly impressive in its own right, but in order to fully appreciate it you have to take it to the next logical step and envision the potential future of technical vision applications. Theoretically, this technology could be used to program adaptation techniques for just about any scenario. If it can detect a building and alter its course to avoid a collision, then it should similarly be able to detect a hostile aircraft and either take evasive manuevers or follow an engagement script.

This isn’t true AI, like the smooth-talking, homicidal HAL of Space Oddyssey, but it’s certainly one step closer towards replicating an AI-like effect. Theoretically, this technology could be expanded to develop a computer that can make the same decisions that an experienced pilot would make. Will we see this technology developed into reactive engagement software, or are the complicated considerations involved in aerial combat too advanced for modern technology? That is undoubtedly a question that we will see explored over the next several decades as more and more drones take to the skies.

If you want advice about the world of military aviation, there’s no better people to turn to than men and women who have sat in the cockpit and flown some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. With over 50 current and ex-warfighters on call, Strike Fighter Consulting Inc. can give you access to up-to-date, first-hand technical and tactical expertise.

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