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Technologies made for war

Rebecca Merrett | May 30, 2014
Autonomous systems considered the 'next big thing' in defence technology

Image courtesy of Department of Defence
Image courtesy of Department of Defence

As dark as it may sound, warfare and the need to outsmart the enemy is often a catalyst for new technology, making the defence industry a leader in innovation. In fact, some of the world's most innovative technologies were born out of war.

For example, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC) was initially used for artillery firing tables in World War Two and was 1000 times faster than electromechanical machines.

"Everything you've probably seen in the consumer arena today has its roots in a defence project: Computers, GPS, networking, wireless communications -- everything really started with some military application," says Alex Zelinsky, chief defence scientist at the Department of Defence's Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO).

Zelinsky leads a number of research projects at DSTO, one of which is developing a range of autonomous systems. These self-governing systems use sensor data, artificial intelligence, human-machine interfaces, communication networks and fast search algorithms to control actions and are considered the 'next big thing' in defence technology.

Emerging autonomous systems include submersibles for clearing mines in the ocean, surface vehicles for monitoring and patrol of waters, trucks for moving heavy equipment, and four-legged robotic 'mules' that carry equipment for soldiers.

Autonomy in action
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are now being controlled by autonomous systems, were used by Australian troops in Afghanistan for surveillance of hazardous areas.

UAVs carry a range of sensors, cameras and laser systems to capture footage of an area that feeds back to a screen at a base terminal for viewing in real time by a soldier.

"The soldiers carry a very small UAV that they literally take out of their backpack and throw [into the air]," Zelinsky explains. "It takes off to do some surveillance work, maps out an area and sends live video signals back to see if there are any dangers nearby."

These dangers include improved explosive devices or bombs. A soldier can then remotely defuse the bomb using the robotic vehicle, Zelinsky says.

An example of a UAV is the Royal Australian Air Force's Heron Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), which proved its worth in Afghanistan, says Department of Defence's CIO, Dr Peter Lawrence.

As a result, the Australian Government has extended its deployment to Afghanistan, providing high resolution intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support until July 2014.

UAVs are also becoming prevalent in maritime patrol operations through the AIR 7000 project. The project will see the current AP-3C Orions aircraft replaced with high-altitude, long endurance UAVs.

UAVs and autonomous systems may be the future of defence, but there are concerns about how they could affect humanity. Zelinksy says it's important to keep humans in the "centre of the loop" with the ability to control the systems and make decisions.


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