Anduril, the military technology company founded by Oculus creator Palmer Luckey, has announced its first weapon system: an adaptation of its Altius drones that turn the aircraft into a “loitering munition” — a type of weapon designed to hover in a designated area before striking a target in the air or on the ground.
The news is notable for two reasons. First, because Anduril has previously focused on surveillance and reconnaissance tech, developing systems of interconnected drones and sentry towers for the US border. And second, because developments in machine learning have enhanced the capabilities of loitering munitions in potentially troubling ways.
Loitering munitions have been in development since the 1980s, initially to strike anti-air missile installations. But these early systems were relatively costly and limited in their selection of targets — homing in on electronic or radar emissions only. Now, cheap drones can be fitted with machine vision systems that allow for more detailed target selection.
Loitering munitions are a flashpoint for debates on autonomous weapons
These developments have made loitering munitions more prevalent in recent conflicts, from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The use of loitering munitions in the Libyan civil war in 2020 may even have constituted the first attack on humans by autonomous “killer robots,” though, as you might expect, confirming such reports from active war zones is extremely challenging.
One difficult question is whether to classify loitering munitions as autonomous weapons. As Jack McDonald, a lecturer at the department of war studies at King’s College London, told The Verge last year, “There are people who call ‘loitering munitions’ ‘lethal autonomous weapon systems’ and people who just call them ‘loitering munitions.’ This is a huge, long-running thing. And it’s because the line between something being autonomous and being automated has shifted over the decades.”
Anduril has not detailed the targeting systems used in its loitering munitions but notes that underling Altius drones are “autonomous,” with one operator “able to control multiple assets.” Said the company in a blog post, “Altius has demonstrated autonomous coordinated strike, target recognition and collaborative teaming.” The drones are also able to “accommodate multiple seeker and warhead options.”
Does this mean the craft are able to select and engage targets without human oversight or just that the drones themselves can fly without direct control? It’s not clear. We’ve reached out to Anduril to find out and will update this story if we hear back.
“For Anduril, this is the first weapon that we are talking about developing,” the company’s chief strategy officer, Chris Brose, told Breaking Defense in an interview accompanying the announcement. “It is not the only weapon that we are developing, and it is definitely not the last weapon that we are going to develop.”
In the past, Luckey has spoken about autonomous weapons as something like inevitabilities, noting that they’re already present on the battlefield in the form of technology like “close-in weapon systems that protect our aircraft carriers from incoming missiles.”
“There’s no other way to solve the problem,” Luckey told Wired earlier this year. “You can’t have a person literally be responsible for pulling the trigger in every instance. The issue is to make sure that responsibility for them always lands with a person.”