AF releases vision for development of autonomous systems

  • Published
  • By Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
The Air Force released a vision document June 22 written by its former chief scientist which helps define a path to increased and effective autonomy.

Autonomous Horizons, authored by Dr. Mica Endsley, provides direction and guidance on the opportunities and challenges in the development of autonomous systems for Air Force operations, and encourages those building autonomous systems to carefully consider and focus on the need for effective human-autonomy teaming as they develop new systems.

"The world has seen unprecedented leaps in technology in the 21st century. If we are not leading those advances, we will be left behind," said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. "We must continue to leverage and develop new technologies and systems that provide our nation and joint force a competitive advantage and explore areas where the application of automation and autonomy makes sense and offers enhanced agility."

In the document, Endsley emphasized that increased autonomy will not replace Airmen but will enable the creation of more effective teams by leveraging the rapid advances being made in many of the technologies supporting autonomous behaviors.

"This vision is both obtainable and sustainable -- it leaves the authority and responsibility for warfare in the hands of Airmen while creating tools that enhance their situation awareness and decision making, speed effective actions and bring needed extensions to their capabilities," Endsley said.

"Rather than attempting to design the Airman out of the equation, the Air Force embraces the agility, intelligence and innovation that Airmen provide, along with the advanced capabilities of autonomy, to create effective teams in which activities can be accomplished smoothly, simply, and seamlessly."

The document explains that Airmen should be able to make informed choices about where and when to invoke autonomy based on a variety of considerations to include trust, the ability to verify an autonomous system's operations, the level of risk and risk mitigation available for a particular operation, the operational need for the autonomy, and the degree to which the system supports the needed partnership with the Airman.

According to Endsley, autonomy has distinct advantages that when harnessed can increase the effectiveness of the Airman, but ultimately, it's the operators that are in control of the system and should be both responsible for decisions and properly supported by the system to make those decisions.

"In certain limited cases, the system may allow the autonomy to take over automatically from the Airman, when timelines are very short for example, or when loss of lives is imminent," Endsley explained. "However, human decision making for the exercise of force with weapon systems is a fundamental requirement, in keeping with Department of Defense directives."

Looking ahead, the new chief scientist, Dr. Greg Zacharias, in collaboration with other stakeholders in the development, testing and operational use of autonomous systems, will continue to examine the many technical issues involved in creating autonomous systems that can deal effectively with the challenges of uncertainty and variability in operational environments.

"We must be innovative and seek ways to fully leverage technology," said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III. "Increased levels of system autonomy will ensure enhanced capability in responding to a range of operations and global challenges."