Countless video games portray battle scenes and sophisticated adversaries, challenging players to outwit and overcome their programmed foes. Perhaps because they are modeled on real life, these video games closely resemble real-world tactical situations and, in fact, may well be providing a glimpse of future battlefields. For better or worse, these battlefields will be populated not by humans but by robots and unmanned vehicles.

Tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have already become a reliable component of many surveillance and signal intelligence (SIGINT) operations for the U.S. Army, as well as part of civilian border patrols between countries. Major contractors such as Lockheed-Martin are well entrenched into UAV technology, with the firm’s Desert Hawk recently making its 100th flight. The company’s work with drones actually goes as far back as the 1960s and the development of the D-21 reconnaissance drone by Lockheed-Martin’s Skunk Works division. Skunk Works would go on to produce a variety of successes in drone technology, including the 1990s’ RQ-3 Darkstar and its almost invisible radar signature.

The U.S. Army is not the only customer for robotic systems, however. Another major contractor, Northrop-Grumman, has been at work for the U.S. Navy for the past decade as part of the Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS). One of the goals of the program is to develop UAVs capable of operating from an aircraft carrier under remote control. One of the successes of that program is the X-47B, a fighter-sized UAV capable of unmanned surveillance, strike, and reconnaissance activities. This is, in fact, an autonomous vehicle that can land and take off on its own and recently even demonstrated autonomous refueling while in the air. The Navy’s goal is to establish a permanent unmanned battle-ready fleet of such unmanned vehicles.

As multiple sensors and radar technology continue to be designed into commercial land vehicles, and the specter of the driverless automobile looms on the horizon, the transportation departments of different states in this country are planning for such things as “autonomous lanes” on major highways, such as California’s famed route 101. As IBM continues to push the limits of cognitive computing by recently programming emotions into its supercomputer Watson, the development of “intelligent” drones and robots for the battlefield will soon follow. If battlefield robots are armed with their own decision-making capabilities, the question will inevitably arise as to how much the humans “controlling” those robots should be involved, and what will be the impact of human involvement on the battlefield.

In the future, a soldier’s place on the battlefield may be far from the action, remotely piloting drones or directing robotic infantry from the screen of a mobile computer or the equivalent of a tactical-grade smartphone. Whether video games are mimicking life or vice versa, the humans may well be far removed from the battlefield, with remotely controlled drones and robots from one side attempting to break through an adversary’s defenses to get at the humans.

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