US Navy builds master control for military drone ops

It's about support costs, not Skynet


The US Office of Naval Research (ONR) has successfully trialed a new computer system that controls airborne drones, automated craft on (or under) the water, and ground-based robots online via a central server.

The new Common Control System (CCS) – although El Reg bets its developers call it Skynet – would allow any combatant to control and get tactical data from robotic weapons in the field using a ruggedized control fondleslab called a Bi-Directional Remote Video Terminal (BDRVT). Central controllers can also get the full picture from all units and coordinate battle plans back at base.

"Some day in the near future you'll have a Sailor controlling an Air Force unit's unmanned system, or an Airman sitting at a desk controlling a naval unmanned system or a Marine controlling an Army platform," said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder. "That's the kind of ability we will have with this new Common Control System – that's our future."

The ONR uses a "Universal Character Set" that – it claims – can be added to any proprietary drone control system to bring the device into the network, and the code is now available from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. All the data is transferred and controlled via a private cloud network, and the ONR claims the system will lower IT costs and increase new drone development.

The system was tested in a simulated battle exercise last year at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center using several surface ships, six aerial drones, and MH-60 piloted helicopters to coordinate an attack plan. Operators worked on desktop and with BDRVT fondleslabs to test out the Common Control System, and the results were proclaimed a success.

The disparate nature of drone systems and their control software across the armed forces (and the US military's increasing reliance on robotic weapons and reconnaissance platforms) has led to spiraling IT support costs. The ONS said that these have risen from $284 million in 2002 to more than $3bn by 2010, and integration issues were stifling the adoption of new drone systems.

"This opens the aperture for a much wider and more rapid generation of newer technologies and capabilities and for all vendors, including small businesses, to be able to compete for those capabilities," said Dr. Bobby Junker, who heads ONR's Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance department. "This is bringing back that entrepreneurial spirit that used to be there with unmanned systems."

That's as may be, but such a system is going to heighten fears among some that mankind is planting the seeds of its own destruction. Sure, Skynet going live is 16 years late in fiction (although a not-atypical major IT project delay) but there are serious concerns being raised about our reliance and control of robotic weaponry.

Of more concern, at least to this El Reg hack, is that such a centralized control system would be the logical first point of attack for any opposing force. If the system is hacked and taken down in the middle of a battlefield, the troops and drones could find themselves flying blind and suffer as a result. ®

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