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The Spectacular Reach and Mounting Challenges Of Uncrewed and Autonomous Vehicles

Laura Breckon | Cyber & Technology Fellow

We have a renewed cause to celebrate uncrewed and autonomous vehicle (UAV) technology this month. After years of testing, perfecting and innovating at the cutting edge of advanced robotics, AI and communications science, February 2021 bore witness to the successful entry of three new payloads on missions to Mars.

On the 9th, the UAE’s Hope probe entered Mars’ orbit to study the Martian atmosphere and weather behaviour. On its coattails came China’s Tianwen-1 that entered the atmosphere on the 10th of February. Tianwen-1 consists of an orbiter, a lander and a rover, and will perform topographical reconnaissance before landing later this year to explore the surface of the planet itself. Last, but in grandiose form, on the 18th of February, NASA’s Perseverance Rover made a direct landing on the dusty delta of Mars’ Jezero crater.

Uncrewed vehicles uniquely enable humankind to venture beyond the limits of human-habitable environments. In the words of H.G Wells: “Life, forever dying to be born afresh, forever young and eager, will presently stand upon this Earth as upon a footstool, and stretch out its realm amidst the stars.” Such is the impetus of the teams of scientists behind these February missions to Mars.

Demonstrating bold ingenuity and ambition, the successful arrival of these technologies at their destination is of immense symbolic value to the states that launched and engineered them. In the case of Perseverance, equipped with a suite of instruments of unprecedented capabilities. It is poised to offer unparalleled insight into the origins and nature of the Martian environment, providing data to Earth to inform the design of future crewed missions to Mars. This includes testing MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment)–technology that may potentially produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for breathing and propellant purposes. There is also SuperCam that, via precision laser technology developed in collaboration with Thales Group, will have the capacity to analyse the chemical composition of rock and dust. Such analysis will search for traces of life as well as the degree to which these materials absorb radiation–important data to understand the nature of Martian weather patterns. Engineers also gave Perseverance a microphone so that Earth may, for the first time, hear the winds of Mars that may both rage and swirl around the rover. On Earth, there are also alien worlds to explore, in environments too harsh for unaided bodies. Uncrewed Aquatic Vehicles are another fascinating technology extending our reach to the depths of our oceans, exploring the likes of seafloor hydrothermal vents whose warmth and mineral deposits have been discovered to have created an extreme yet potent biome for life to flourish. The potential for similar places existing or having existed on Mars is set to be explored by Perseverance in the Martian sediment of the Jezero crater, which bears the topographical markers of having once been a great lake. Similarly, self-driving drones are also a reality. Exyn Technologies has recently developed an autonomous drone with the ability to map and render in 3D the internal layouts of enclosed spaces, which has already been used to map and explore the depths of complex cave systems and mines–a veritable robot explorer.

These are exciting developments. Investigating hostile and far-flung environments breathes insight into what is needed for humanity to prosper, and perhaps even to flourish beyond our usual environments, or indeed even on another planet. Private companies are actively developing UAV technologies that will aid not only in deep-sea resource extraction and the polar regions, but even on extraterrestrial bodies, like meteorites and moons. Increased activity in these areas beyond national jurisdiction (airspace, space, and deep seas) complicates international liability regimes. Further still, issues can arise when these technologies encroach upon the operations systems within our everyday lives, sometimes rendering human input redundant.

Of particular concern is the application of autonomous vehicle technology to weapons systems. Lethal autonomous weapons systems are an ethicists nightmare, yet potentially a soldier’s saving grace. There is also the evolving scene of uncrewed transportation, which raises questions of producer versus consumer liability for damage caused by these vehicles. And there is also the matter of cybersecurity further complicating the playing field.

As autonomous vehicles become more widespread, the issue of responsible operations, particularly regarding protecting and reasonable use of the data they gather, has become a marked priority. Cybersecurity threats have increased considerably over the recent decade, and the issue of hostile hijacking of UAV’s poses a major developmental challenge for states and private entities alike. Furthermore, civilian use and engagement with UAV’s present privacy challenges. For instance, a crop-dusting drone may inadvertently gather geospatial or visual data of an adjoining civilian house to the field it is tending to. States will need to stay on top of privacy and data management regulations to responsibly manage this new traffic within and outside of their jurisdictions.

For now, the opportunities that UAV’s are offering has given unprecedented momentum to the development and refinement of them as technologies. Providing reach to places previously thought unreachable, as well as novel solutions to everyday challenges, investment in these technologies will only increase with the successes of the likes of the three arrivals to Mars this passing February. However, as UAV traffic increases and becomes embedded in communities, regulatory challenges have become distinctly and troublingly visible on the horizon.

Laura Breckon is the Cyber & Technology Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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