The US Navy has executed the first launch of a stealth drone set to be the first robot aircraft piloted by artificial intelligence. The “killer robot” might be the next step in the development of machines with the power to decide who lives or dies.
Landing on a flight deck just might be the most difficult thing a naval pilot can do. But if the United States Navy has its way, it might be an operation no pilot ever has to complete again.
After five-years in the making, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator completed its first land-based catapult launch, “marking the start for a new era of naval aviation,” the navy announced on Thursday.
With a wingspan of 62-feet (18.9m), the subsonic drone will be the first tailless aircraft ever to land on a carrier.
"The X-47B shore-based catapult launch we witnessed here today will leave a mark in history," the navy quotes Vice Adm. David Dunaway, NAVAIR commander, as saying.
"We are working toward the future integration of unmanned aircraft on the carrier deck, something we didn't envision 60 years ago when the steam catapult was first built here," he continued.
Engineers had originally planned 50 test flights from the X-47B, but after performing beyond expectations, they stopped after 16 trials.
Following the dozen-plus successful trials, the next step came on Monday, when the drone was hoisted on to the flight deck of aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman.
After a series of upcoming sea trials planned for 2013, the X-47B is set to become the world’s first unmanned aircraft piloted by artificial intelligence rather than a remote human operator.
The subsonic stealth drone, first dreamed up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and later taken over by the navy, has been given a robot brain, putting it miles above the thousands of other unmanned drones currently circling the skies. While automation has long been a feature of robots, the X-47B will truly be autonomous.
People will still have a say in the X-47B’s overall mission, though the drone will be able to make split-second decisions in a real-time environment all on its own.
So while a living and breathing operator might select its flight path, a medley of GPS equipment, accelerometers, altimeters, gyroscopes, collision avoidance sensors and its highly-evolved Control Display Unit will leave the X-47B’s moment-to-moment decisions out of human hands.
For those reminded of SkyNet’s self-aware Hunter Killer aerials from the Terminator films, the Pentagon announced earlier this month announced that the decision to hurt or kill a human being would never be made by a machine.
With two weapon bays capable of carrying up to 4,500lbs (2 tonnes) of ordnance, the X-47B certainly has the ability to kill, though for now, it does not have the will.