General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, manufacturer of the Reaper drone, has recently been awarded a US Air Force contract to demonstrate the ‘Agile Condor’ artificial intelligence system with the MQ-9 Reaper drone. According to General Atomics President David R. Alexander,
a“The Agile Condor project will further enhance RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] effectiveness by specifically allowing a MQ-9 to surveil a large area of operations, autonomously identify pre-defined targets of interest and transmit their locations.”
This type of capability represents a tangible step further towards the development of autonomous weaponised drones able to operate without human input – flying killer robots, in other words. From identifying targets without the need for a human decision to destroying those targets is a very small step which could be achieved with existing technology.
The Agile Condor system is intended to send information back to a human analyst. There’s no intention for it to be used in an autonomous mode, and current US military policy on autonomous weapons is that there should always be ’appropriate levels of human judgement’ over the use of force. However, there is no guarantee of such a restrained approach to autonomous weapons in the future, by the US or any other nation (or indeed by an non-state group). The danger is, as we detail in our report on the development of autonomous military drone (see below), lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS) are likely to develop though step-by-step upgrades in technological capability.
Agile Condor is a high-performance computing system which uses AI techniques to enable on-board processing of large quantities of data from the drone’s sensors – for example video footage, synthetic aperture radar imagery, or infra-red camera imagery. The system is mounted in a pod which can be fitted to the drone, and has been designed for installation in a variety of configurations including sea-based, ground based, and fixed-site weapon systems as well as on aircraft.
The demonstration flights which General Atomics will be undertaking will be used to experiment with the Agile Condor system to optimise AI and machine learning techniques for finding, identifying, and tracking targets. It’s possible that they will include ‘training’ of the AI system to identify potential targets, with human operators confirming whether the computer has made a correct decision in order to refine and improve its performance.