'Drone natives' may one day help or harm US forces, says Army futurist
WASHINGTON -- The term "digital natives" was coined for children born after 2000, because those young people have grown up in a world already inundated with computers, cell phones and tablets, said Luke Shabro, deputy director of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command's "Mad Scientist Initiative." Children born today might one day be called "drone natives," he said, because the use of drones around the world will soon expand substantially. Shabro spoke here Aug. 24 during the Institute for Defense & Government Advancement-sponsored Counter-UAS Summit. By 2020, Goldman Sachs estimates that global militaries will spend a combined total of $70 billion annually on unmanned aerial systems, he said. And the global civilian drone market will be $20 billion per year by 2021. That proliferation poses unique rewards and challenges for the U.S., and for the U.S. military in particular, he said. The rewards are well-known, he noted. Unmanned aerial systems can be used to inspect bridges and structures from various aerial angles that would otherwise be difficult to get. That could benefit installations. And unmanned aerial systems have already proven themselves with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks as well as kinetic missions. They've even been used as target decoys for kinetic and laser weapons. The challenge is that state and non-state actors are also eyeing drones with their own nefarious ideas in mind, using tactics that are unconventional, Shabro said. For example, in January, a Russian military base in Syria was attacked by non-state actors armed with 10 to 12 drones, he said. It was not a swarming attack, where communications take place between drones to coordinate movement. Swarm communications are much easier to jam or hijack by counter-UAS measures since they're operating on a set frequency. In this instance, the drones conducted what is termed a "saturation attack," he explained. In this type of attack, drone operators simply programmed pre-planned routes into the drone software, making them much harder to take down, because they could be operating on a variety of frequencies. As 3-D printing becomes more advanced and affordable, prototyping customized drones will become available to the general population, he said, allowing bad actors to tailor their drones for specific missions. And open source code used in the manufacture of commercial off-the-shelf drones will allow bad actors to tweak a drone's algorithms in ways that increase the lethality of its operating characteristics, he said. Shabro projected that the convergence of such things as new materials, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics and improved battery power will enable drones of the future to do things that are unimaginable today. Chris Seymour, technical director of the National Security Agency, said the introduction of 5G cellular will dramatically increase the range, performance and communication reach-back between drones and drone operators. He compared the 5G rollout to the rollout of the first cellular phone service in the increased capability it will unleash. Shabro said it will be difficult to defend against the coming drone invasion by outspending the enemy, since drones are becoming cheaper to acquire. MAD SCIENTIST SEEKING SOLUTIONS The Mad Scientist Initiative -- which is involved in imagining what the world will look like in 2050 in terms of demographics, culture and technologies such as drones -- is taking a four-pronged approach to the challenge of dealing with drones, Shabro said. First, Shabro said, the MSI team is familiarizing itself with works of fiction to see what is being considered possible. Technologies featured in early science fiction works, such as cell phones and massive lasers used as weapons, were not savable when they were first conceived of in fiction -- though they are now. Second, MSI is crowdsourcing, he said, noting that the entire MSI team consists of only five individuals, so they have to rely on the brainpower of others. Crowdsourcing consists of harnessing the intellect of the entire nation, he explained. MSI posts futuristic exercises on its @ArmyMadSci Twitter account, for example. MSI also hosts a science fiction writing contest on its blog, which attracted some 130 submissions from around the world. There are also MSI conferences that invite thinkers from industry and academia. Crowdsourcing is a powerful way to bring together people and ideas in a low-cost, high-reward manner, he said. Third, MSI is combing the landscape for "edge cases," he said, defining that term as hobbyists who take their work to an extreme level, be it creating unique drones, software or other devices. Their cutting-edge work often heralds commercial developments years later. These are true technology pioneers, he said. And fourth, MSI looks backwards at historical analogies, he said. This technique isn't always perfect, but it helps to frame the way questions about the future should be asked and how events might unfold. In the early 1900s, for example, a conference of mayors from across the nation convened to study a messy problem: how to deal with an increasing amount of horse manure on city streets, which posed a sanitary and aesthetic problem. As the mayors mulled this problem and fruitlessly tried to solve it over the years, developments occurred that rendered the problem moot. Automobiles and trolleys soon burgeoned, making horse transportation obsolete in a relatively short time. The takeaway from this example, Shabro said, is that things considered problems now might not be so problematic in the future. Conversely, things not seen as problems now, such as autonomous robotic weapons without humans in the loop, might be problems in the future, as nations without large militaries might seek an advantage.