Will Ukraine deploy lethal autonomous drones against Russia?

Ukraine has used drones in innovative ways throughout the Russia-Ukraine war, and may now be preparing to deploy machines capable of finding and attacking targets without direct human control

Technology


| Analysis

1 November 2022

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands near a Russian kamikaze drone in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 27 October

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ukraine has developed drones that are capable of finding targets autonomously, a Ukrainian military leader has claimed, raising the prospect that the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war could see the first confirmed use of “killer robots” in armed conflict.

Yaroslav Honchar, a lieutenant colonol in the Ukranian military, gave details in an interview with Ukrainian news agency UNIAN on 13 October. Honchar is co-founder of Aerorozvidka (“Aerial Intelligence”), a team of around a thousand volunteer drone enthusiasts and technologists set up in 2014 to develop and use drones and other technology.

Honchar claimed that the team’s drones already fly scout missions autonomously and mentions the possibility of automated strikes, but didn’t say such strikes had been carried out. Aerorozvidka declined to comment on the issue when asked by New Scientist.

“The technology already exists and this phenomenon cannot be stopped,” said Honchar in the interview.

Ukraine has proven highly adept at using drones in innovative ways following Russia’s invasion, from strikes by small multicopters armed with miniature anti-tank bombs to a large-scale attack by multiple drones and robot boats against a Russian naval base in Crimea.

All of these have been under the command of human operators, but Ukrainian developers have previously described intelligent vision systems allowing drones to spot camouflaged military vehicles, which could easily be adapted for attacks without human assistance.

“I would not be at all surprised if the Ukrainians used some kind of machine-learning-based vision for automated target recognition in anti-tank roles, for example,” says Mark Gubrud, a physicist and long time campaigner against autonomous weapons. “That’s where the times are at.”

Both sides of the conflict are increasingly deploying radio-frequency jammers that block the communication between operator and drone. This may be driving the development of autonomous systems.

“Autonomy reduces the need for operator input, which reduces the effectiveness of jamming,” says Zak Kallenborn at the Schar School of Policy and Government in Virginia.

Campaigners want new international laws to prevent such autonomous weapons being developed or deployed. On 21 October, 70 nations delivered a joint statement at the UN General Assembly calling for international prohibitions and regulations on autonomous weapons, but UN discussions have been taking place for years with little progress.

“There is no specific prohibition against the use of autonomous weapons. Any challenge to their use would have to be based on an argument that the weapons were indiscriminate and a threat to non-combatants,” says Gubrud. “If their use is limited to materiel targets in areas of active combat, we’re unlikely to see civilian casualties that substantiate such a charge.”

Based on previous comments about using computer vision systems to spot camouflaged vehicles, Ukrainian drone strikes are likely to be tightly focused on finding and targeting specific Russian military hardware such as tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft systems. And the Ukrainian leadership may feel justified in using them.

“Ukraine is fighting for survival, so I would expect the military to use whatever tools can help them survive,” says Kallenborn. “Potential Ukrainian use of AI-based autonomous weapons shows the urgency for the global community to establish rules of the road: what autonomous weapons are no big deal, and which need serious regulation and international bans.”

Gubrud points out that using such weapons is likely to play badly with international allies and may not be needed. “Their success with using remotely operated systems shows that there is little need for full lethal autonomy,” he says.

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