Puny human sailors still needed... until drone machine learning tech catches up

RN admiral insists robots won't replace sailors, for now


Drones won’t replace proper sailors anytime soon because, believe it or not, they need more manpower to operate, a Royal Navy admiral has insisted.

Naval drones are “not about reducing the requirement for people”, Rear Admiral Paul Bennett told a press briefing attended by El Reg on Friday. Instead, they are for putting people into positions where they add “real value”.

At present, unmanned systems - drones - require on average something like four or five operators each, we understand. Rather than enabling cuts in manpower, if anything they require ever more personnel aboard ships to operate them; not a good situation to be in when the Navy is already critically short of heads.

“If you look at what's happening in the mine countermeasures world, for example,” continued the admiral, “we’ve got autonomous vehicles searching for mines, providing information through an unmanned surface vehicle to a UAV [flying drone] which is providing info to a command and control system.”

“What you’ve done by that,” he explained, “is reduced the number of people in the search element but you are able to place more people into the command, control and analysis element.”

The discussion came as part of the Navy’s ongoing Unmanned Warrior drone exercise taking place off the north-west coast of Scotland. Naval personnel, along with civilian firms, are putting 40 different types of drone through their paces, from traditional aerial surveillance craft to autonomous mini-submarines.

Commander Peter Pipkin, the RN’s fleet robotics officer, joined the admiral in giving examples of current naval thinking on uses for drones.

“Putting up unmanned search and reconnaissance aircraft... seems to be an obvious area where you could exploit these technologies,” he said.

Pipkin added that for a deployed ship or flotilla to physically examine areas of interest over the horizon means deploying an expensive helicopter and its crew into - potentially - harm’s way.

“The level of integration [for drones at present] is such that systems could be tasked to do that dull bit and understand that they need to flag up to the operator when their input is needed,” continued Cdr Pipkin.

In the civilian maritime world the use of drones is chiefly to replace expensive humans and ships in mundane tasks such as surveying the seabed and similar data-gathering exercises, but the naval use of drones is much more intensive than that. As well as observing that something unusual is going on, drones also need to be able to react to whatever that event is.

While El Reg was assured that current British policy is for a human always to be in the loop, particularly when armed drones such as the infamous Reapers are being used, the question of how much work a human can usefully do while supervising a number of drones is an intriguing one.

While at defence research agency Qinetiq’s Portsdown facility, we were shown a prototype one-man-for-many-drones control system. It was immediately apparent just how quickly operators' workloads escalated if one sea-surface drone encountered a situation requiring sustained human interaction - and how quickly that workload could become overwhelming if more than one drone needed his attention.

The challenge for today’s drone control system designers is to hone their systems into being able to make autonomous decisions at a certain level. Do you need a human to tell you to make a course change in order to avoid a collision with another vessel, or is that something which the drone can be programmed to do without further input? If you’ve just run into something unexpected - say, an uncharted rock - can a human do anything useful at that point other than pinpointing your location for a rescue crew to recover the drone?

The possibilities for machine learning in the development of tomorrow’s drone control systems is obvious. Whether industry is able to keep up with that challenge is another question. ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

    Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat liver disease reaches human clinical trials and more

    In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

    A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.

    In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    Continue reading
  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading
  • American diplomats' iPhones reportedly compromised by NSO Group intrusion software

    Reuters claims nine State Department employees outside the US had their devices hacked

    The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.

    NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers' access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.

    "Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations," an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. "To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021