Intelligent autonomous systems and platforms

The trend towards robotics1 and autonomy2 of operational systems, introduced several years ago on the defence market by powerful nations such as the United States, and then gradually extended amongst the world, has direct consequences for Belgian Defence. Intelligent autonomous systems are part of the answer to the increasing risks of modern combat with more and more urgent constraints, namely, reducing costs while increasing efficiency, alleviating the lack of military personnel and reducing risks for and/or by human actors in operational missions. Belgian Defence is therefore looking at (semi-)autonomous system based solutions aiming at accomplishing specific challenging types of missions (air/land/sea/cyber/space).

The concept of intelligent autonomous systems must be understood in a broad sense: autonomous systems are able to respond to uncertain situations by independently composing and selecting among different courses of action in order to accomplish goals based on knowledge and a contextual understanding of the world, itself, and the situation. Autonomy is characterized by degrees of self-directed behaviour (levels of autonomy) ranging from manual, over automatic and automated, to fully autonomous3. In general, these levels of autonomy are applicable to a limited number of functions of the system, rather than to the system as a whole. Intelligent refers to the ability of these systems to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence – for example, recognising patterns, learning from experience, drawing conclusions, making predictions or taking action – whether digitally or as the smart software behind autonomous systems. (Intelligent) autonomous platforms or systems are not to be confused with unmanned vehicles (UxVs4) or unmanned systems.

The study, development, design and/or use of such systems entails ethical and legal issues, considering the intended purpose, the effective use, the desired, required or allowed level of autonomy, the rules of engagement and rules of command and control, which are addressed within the focus areas A11. The energy aspects of autonomy are addressed in axis A9.

One of the invaluable advantages of intelligent autonomous systems is that they can overcome the physical limitations of human beings. They will fundamentally change the way armed forces operate, by increasing situational awareness, reducing the soldier’s physical and cognitive workloads, improving sustainment, facilitating movement and manoeuvre, increasing reach and range and force protection. In addition, intelligent autonomy will enable capabilities that are not currently possible, such as long-duration unmanned underwater observation and surveillance, where the platform must be able to work for months without human intervention or communication. Robotics and autonomous systems technology will also provide a significant opportunity in the training and education of armed forces to improve learning and provide cost-effective and realistic training.

In the context of the trend towards autonomy, including interaction and collaboration between (intelligent) systems (see recent developments in swarm intelligence) and interactive cooperation with human actors, very specific technological aspects need to be further explored and examined in-depth. As such and amongst others, decision support algorithms, cybersecurity and procedures to evaluate vehicle/operator/team system performance as a function of platform autonomy need continued in-depth research.
While UxVs have become increasingly common and essential capabilities for military operations, the use of virtual software agents or bots for offensive and defensive action in information and cyberspace could also be investigated.

In addition, as nature provides inspiration for technology design, particular attention will be paid to biological evolution and the use of biology in order to improve systems by learning from the autonomy and adaptability of life.

Ongoing projects concerning this focus area

Database programme 2021 with search options

1 “Robotics is the study of designing and building autonomous systems spanning all levels of autonomy (including full human control)” – (NATO Science & Technology Trends 2020-2040)
2 In its simplest form, autonomy is the ability of a machine to perform a task without human input. (NATO ACT – Autonomous Systems – Issues for Defence Policymakers)
3 Ref: NATO Science & Technology Trends 2020-2040
4 “Unmanned Vehicles (UxV’s) may be remotely controlled by a person or may act autonomously depending on the mission. Applications include allowing for access to unreachable areas, persistent surveillance, endurance, robots in support of soldiers, and cheaper, automated logistics deliveries” – (NATO Science & Technology Trends 2020-2040)