WASHINGTON — Autonomous military ground vehicles are likely years away from becoming a reality, despite recent investments from both the commercial and defense sectors in that technology, according to a top Pentagon official.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, the department's point man on new technological developments, said Wednesday he expects the Pentagon will have autonomous systems operating in the air before such ground systems are ready to roll out.

The issue, Work explained at an event hosted by the Washington Post, is that while driverless technology from commercial firms like Google is evolving rapidly, it may not translate into the kind of ground-based operations that the Pentagon performs.

"In the commercial space, they generally are going after cars that will operate on paved roads," Work said. "Whereas in the military, not only will we stay on [non-paved] roads, but when the roads become more dangerous we'll go off-road. That kind of navigation is extremely difficult. I would expect us to see unmanned wingmen in the air before we would see unmanned convoys on the ground."

Work pointed towards the "loyal wingman" program that the Air Force has experimented with, which involves turning an F-16 into an unmanned system with limited autonomy that can be controlled by an F-35, as an example of where autonomy will likely show up first on platforms.

"I would expect to see unmanned wingmen in the air first," Work said. "I would expect to see unmanned systems in the sea all over the place. I would expect to see unmanned systems on the surface of the sea. I would expect to see unmanned systems delivering things to soldiers around the battlefield from the air, as we've already demonstrated that in Afghanistan."

The reference to Afghanistan regards tests run jointly by the Marine Corps and the Army using Lockheed Martin's K-MAX unmanned helicopter to sling-load cargo. One of the aircraft crashed and the Marine Corps and Army completed its operational assessment using the remaining aircraft, but did not pursue the capability beyond that.

On March 17, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, told Defense News that the Army's robotics and autonomous systems strategy was in final edits and would be released before the end of the year.

Part of that strategy involves experimenting with autonomy for convoys, said Scott Davis, the director of the Army's Combat Support and Combat Services Support office.

Going full-autonomous "is going to be a while," Davis said. The Army is bringing on the capability in gradual steps, bringing on by-wire active safety capability first, then the service will bring on leader-follower capability. The Army will "eventually" move into an autonomous convoy set capability.

"I would say the full autonomous convoy is probably in the mid- to late-2020s, but I would expect [the Army] would have leader-follower yet in this decade," Davis said.

A number of defense industry firms, including Lockheed Martin and Oshkosh, have invested in autonomous technology for ground caravans. The idea is to eliminate danger to soldiers, who proved to be highly at risk while traveling in convoys across large areas of land in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has made the development of autonomous systems a key part in its push for technological dominance over other great powers, namely China and Russia.

However, the threat of "killer robots" has led to public outcries about whether the Pentagon should be experimenting with such technology, including from notables such as scientist Stephen Hawking, SpaceX and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and linguist Noam Chomsky.

Work downplayed concerns, saying "the word autonomy to us is very simple. It is nothing more than delegating decision authority to the entity in your battle network."

He said the first wave of autonomy in systems will be equivalent to the "easy park" button now found in some cars, which when engaged takes in data from sensors, runs it through an algorithm and guides the car into a parking spot for the driver.

"We will have certain things like that our battle network," Work said, before telling the crowd that "we will not delegate lethal authority for a machine to make a decision."

But, Work added, "This is something that is inexorable. It is going to happen."

Jen Judson in Washington contributed to this report. 

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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