Technically, this term could be applied to autonomous systems in most any industry – communications, medicine, manufacturing, robotics, transportation, warehousing, entertainment, and more – because those autonomous technologies all carry out a “mission” of some kind. In defense technology, however, the term Mission Autonomy is used more literally, meaning next-generation autonomous systems that carry out, manage, or assist in the management of military and intelligence gathering (C4ISR) missions, including battle management. The defense and aerospace industries require a range of C4ISR Mission Systems designed to initiate and/or manage missions with limited human intervention. Unlike other industries mentioned above, these autonomous systems must operate frequently in dangerous or uncertain environments, including active military conflict zones, high altitude flights, undersea operations, in space, and more.
How do Mission Autonomy technologies work?
Autonomous systems incorporate artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and proprietary algorithms into the control and management of complex technologies which can often be programmed to use different levels of human involvement in their operations. Autonomy systems range from ones that are controlled remotely by humans (semi-autonomous systems) to systems that function completely independent of human operators (fully autonomous systems). Likewise, Mission Autonomy systems can also range in the degree of involvement by human operators, as well as varying in the type of mission they manage. Types of mission management they provide can include:
- Multi-Vehicle Mission Control Systems that can act as a cloud-based central control for a fleet of Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs or Drones), Multi-Mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA), or other specialty vehicles.
- Vehicle and Fleet Auto-Routing Programs that make orchestrating multiple autonomous vehicles in missions easier, lower in cost, and enable critical decision making at mission speeds.
- Manned/Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) Management, which enables integration of human-guided and unmanned vehicles in missions in the air, on land, on the water, and even beneath the surface.
- Command & Control (C2) Database Management and Track & Identity Fuser to automate and greatly enhance situational awareness.
Who uses Mission Autonomy?
Although development of autonomous technologies continues to grow rapidly for use in private industry, municipal services, law enforcement, and even for personal use, the most significant advances in Mission Autonomy systems has been for the defense community’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) centers. Most have been developed on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), particularly the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Air Force (USAF), the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and others. There is a belief that more secretive near-peer U.S. competitors like Russia and China, are also at various stages of advanced Mission Autonomy system development.
Defending the Future of Mission Autonomy
Development and implementation of Mission Autonomy systems has become easier as the technology has evolved. The parallel growth and availability of innovative, high performance robotics and highly-efficient power systems has contributed to this rapid advancement. A potential obstacle to broader use of these systems, however, is an equal growth in security threats from both non-state and competing state actors. These threats run the gamut from sensor spoofing and false data injection to electromagnetic interference attacks and more. Because of these threats it is particularly important for developers of tomorrow’s Mission Autonomy technologies to also be leaders in recognizing, resisting, and responding to cyber-physical systems (CPS) hacks and vehicular sensor attacks targeting command and control systems. While every mission involves risk, the ability to secure against such risks while advancing autonomous proficiency is essential.
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