War Drone Refueling a Major Step in Robotics

February 2, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015
Epoch Times Photo
The X-47B UCAS Unveiling. The unmanned aerial vehicle is being tested for autonomous midair refueling. (Courtesy of Northrop Grumman)

A glimpse at what’s to come often comes shrouded in mystery. In mid-December, a 32-foot package was transported down U.S. Route 77, smooth and rounded, tightly wrapped from front to back.

The object was a near-perfect match to the stereotype of a UFO (and fooled many onlookers), but it was not. For inside was the Navy’s experimental X-47B, the first autonomous drone capable of landing on an aircraft carrier. 

The Navy took a key step Jan. 23 toward its release, with tests on autonomous midair refueling. “This is a game-changer for naval aviation and is critical for our success with unmanned long-range aircraft in the future,” said Capt. Jaime Engdahl, Navy UCAS program manager, in a press release.

This latest achievement in drone development comes like a car to a world of horse-drawn carriages. The autonomous technology is made for military robots, a technology that soon may not only dominate modern wars, but also find its way into every household—for better or for worse.

“There always needs to be a triggering event, and that just happened,” said Robert Oschler, who programs artificial intelligence (AI) and electroencephalogram control systems for home robotics.

Oschler said the latest developments in military technology are “huge,” noting that major shifts in consumer technology often start with the military.

The consumer robotics market was nearly destroyed several years back. Just prior to the global financial crisis, a small, cute robot dinosaur known as “Pleo” made a round of appearances, including television shows like 20/20 and Ellen DeGeneres. “Shortly after that, everyone started getting in the game,” Oschler said.

As development sailed along, consumer feedback was already pointing in a specific direction: people didn’t want remote-controlled consumer-programmed robots. “They want their robots autonomous,” Oschler said. “It’s like if someone said before you go watch TV tonight you have to go through these eight steps. People just want to sit down on their couch, throw back some popcorn, and watch TV.”

Yet before development could move further, the market died. “It was starting to boom. It was about to be the next big thing, before the global financial crisis killed it,” he said.

A handful of companies weathered the robotics fallout by cashing in on the military market. A small handful of others, like iRobot, makers of the Roomba, hunkered down and waited for the market to open again.

Yet developments in military robotics technology, coupled with the military market now drying up, could cause another shift. “These companies are going to need something to sell,” Oschler said.

“What are they going to do with the R&D departments, what are they going to design and sell now that the markets are drying up? They’re going to turn to the consumer marketplace,” he said.

Next … Robotics Ethics

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