The X-47B, also known as the Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS), is the world’s first and only stealth autonomous drone. Late last year, it accomplished a first when it was placed aboard the USS Harry Truman, mainly to see if it would remain in place as the ship conducted maneuvers. This was the first in a series of trials to see if the new naval drone can take off and land from an aircraft carrier.
And earlier this month, it achieved another when it performed its first arrested landing. Basically, this involves a plane landing and grabbing hold of an arresting cable with a tailhook, simulating what happens aboard a carrier deck. This marked an important milestone in the development of the UCAS by proving that it is capable of landing at sea. Later this month, it will complete the final trial when it takes part in a catapult launch from the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush.
For some time now, the development of autonomous aerial drones has been the subject of concern, both from human rights groups and concerned citizens who worry about putting the power to kill into the hands of machines. The use of less sophisticated UAVs, such as the MQ-9 Reaper and the MQ-1 Predator, has already attracted considerable attention and criticism due to questions about their killing power and how they are being used.
However, these two weapons systems both have the distinction of being controlled by a remote operator, not by an on-board computer. By removing a human being from the process altogether, many fear that things will only get worse. Up until now, the US Navy and other branches of the armed services, both within the US and abroad, have had people making the decision to use lethal force. This has ensured a degree of oversight and culpability, but with autonomous machines, that will no longer be the case.
What’s more, if this technology is ever used against the citizens of the country that employ them, the people will have a much harder time holding those responsible to account. In response to these concerns, the Pentagon announced last Thanksgiving that it would be taking measures to ensure that, where life-and-death decisions were concerned, a human controller would always be at the helm.
What’s more, the Navy has offered its assurances to the public that the X-47B is not intended for operational use, but is part of a program geared toward the creation of other unmanned carrier-based aircraft programs. However, with some modifications, the unit would be capable of being outfitting with weapons mounts that would be capable of supporting missiles and bombs, at which point any legal barriers could easily find themselves being removed.
And as always, there are those who worry that giving machines the ability to kill without human oversight is a threat in and of itself. Forget about the government being culpable, what’s to happen when said machines decide to launch nukes at Russia so that the counter-attack will kill its enemies over here? Find John Conner, people, he’s our only hope!