• December 3, 2021

Anduril’s New Drone Offers to Inject More AI Into Warfare

This spring, a team of small drones, each resembling a small, sensor-laden helicopter, scoured a lush stretch of wilderness near Irvine, California. They spent hours circling the sky, seeking, among other things, surface-to-air missile launchers lurking in the brush.

The missiles they found weren’t enemy ones. They were props for early test flights of a prototype military drone stuffed with artificial intelligence—the latest product from Anduril, a defense-tech startup founded by Palmer Luckey, the creator of Oculus Rift.

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The new drone, the Ghost 4, shows the potential for AI in military systems. Luckey says it is the first generation that can perform various reconnaissance missions, including searching an area for enemy hardware or soldiers, under the control of a single person on the ground. The vehicle uses machine learning (the method behind most modern AI) to analyze imagery and identify targets, but it also relies on more conventional rules-based software for critical control and decisionmaking among swarm teammates.

Luckey says the drones can carry a range of payloads, including systems capable of jamming enemy communications or an infrared laser to direct weapons at a target. In theory the drone could be fitted with its own weapons. “It would be possible,” he says. “But nobody’s done it yet.”

Kevin Ryan, a retired brigadier general and a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, says the military is interested in small drones, because they can gather the same intelligence as a satellite or a large, conventional drone more cheaply, quickly, and independently.

However, Ryan, who previously worked at iRobot, a company that used to make military systems as well as robot vacuum cleaners, says it remains unclear just how intelligent and how useful such systems will actually be. “Everybody understands that AI is gonna be able to do these fantastic things down the road, Ryan says. “What we don’t know is how soon.”

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