Earth Imaging Journal: Remote Sensing, Satellite Images, Satellite Imagery
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October 12, 2011
Modern Warfare’s Battle Cry: “I, Robot”

The quest for geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) began with the first skirmishes between rival tribes centuries ago. Today’s warfighter seeks the same edge by having better GEOINT about the enemy than the enemy has about him or her—that hasn’t changed. But the way the modern warfighter collects and uses GEOINT is changing faster than at any time in military history, paralleling the tsunami of information technology innovation in general.

In terms of GEOINT, one of the most visible paradigm shifts in modern warfare has been the use of robots and robotic devices to collect data. Chief among these is the success of the unmanned aircraft system (UAS), a robotic flight technology that has seen phenomenal growth in both capabilities and sheer numbers during the last decade. Time and time again in Iraq and Afghanistan, drones have proved that when it comes to GEOINT, they’re the stars of the battle theater.

How Much Is Too Much?

In fact, drones are so good at acquiring GEOINT, they’ve created a perplexing paradox for military commanders—how much tactical information can a warfighter actually put to good use before he or she becomes overwhelmed by the very knowledge intended to give him or her a battlefield edge?

Even as the military continues to push the limits of information dissemination, it has learned much about the brain’s multitasking limits. The U.S. Army uses its Improved Performance Research Integration Tool (IMPRINT) software to help assess the interaction of the warfighter and system performance throughout the system lifecycle—from concept and design to field testing and system upgrades.

According to the Army, IMPRINT helps set realistic system requirements by identifying soldier-driven constraints on system design, and evaluating the capability of available manpower and personnel to operate effectively and maintain a system under environmental stressors. In other words, it tries to determine how much information a stressed warfighter’s brain can absorb before it melts down.

Pushing the Mind’s Limits

Modern military operations are trending rapidly toward automating many of the tasks once performed by human soldiers. At the heart of this trend is an effort to flip-flop the ratio of humans to robots, allowing a single human operator to oversee multiple machines.

Raja Parasuraman, a psychologist at George Mason University, uses computer simulations to test the limits of human multitasking on the battlefield. He has put Air Force pilots through simulations where they manage five or six drones at once while dealing with information from 30 or 40 different sources in chat windows.

Parasuraman told Innovation News Daily, “The Air Force is interested in scaling up that [multitasking] problem in the simulations. If we have 100 operators and thousands of [unmanned aircraft] and a network of many hundreds of computer systems and people sending info, what’s the breaking point?”

What—Or Who—Is Next?

As the military grapples with the issue of information overload, science continues to extend the autonomous capabilities of robots, allowing them to do more and more with even less human intervention—and we’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI). In the evolution of robots, true AI capabilities would be a real game changer, enabling a breed of machines capable of human interaction and social-emotional intelligence, similar to the endearing Star Wars droids.

Researcher Cynthia Breazeal, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who heads the Personal Robots Group at the school’s media lab, asks the poignant question: “What happens when the Internet gets a body? Go ahead—let your imagination run wild.”

— Jeff Specht, publisher, Earth Imaging Journal

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