MILAN — Not far from the front lines, under dense vegetation that obstructs satellite signals, a military nano-sized drone is conducting a reconnaissance mission. From a safe distance, the operator utters a voice command that an artificial intelligence-based software turns into drone language, causing the tiny robot to change course: “Sharp turn left and head straight.”

The scenario is hypothetical, but seeing drones in conflict zones embedded with an AI-assistant capability, enabling two-way voice communication between drones and their handlers, could become a reality in the not-so-distant future, according to defense analysts.

“The ultimate goal right now, largely influenced by Ukraine, is to make the interactions between the operator and the drone as efficient as possible,” said Samuel Bendett, research analyst at the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analyses. “This includes how the data is transmitted from the UAV and how it is analyzed by the operator,” he added, using the acronym for unmanned aerial vehicle.

One of the ways defense manufacturers are approaching the problem is by developing ways to simplify how humans steer drones on the battlefield, injecting voice control into the mix to replace the traditional control panels of sticks and levers.

A company who has been experimenting with the technology is U.S.-based Teledyne Flir Defense, which has partnered with AI startup Primordial Labs, of New Haven, Conn., to include voice control to the Black Hornet micro-drone, widely used by militaries globally.

Unveiled at the International SOF Week in Tampa, Florida, in May, the drone was integrated with the Anura software – coined by Primordial Labs as a “tactical AI assistant” – where it was able to receive voice commands from its operator from a computer and fly to different points in the conference hall.

“We first learned about the Anura voice control technology late last year and thought it would be a very interesting modality to bring to our Black Hornet end-users,” Ole Seeland, product director of reconnaissance systems at Teledyne, told Defense News. “U.S. Special Operations Command has supported this effort with both funding and requirements.”

Language barrier

Implementing auditory controls for drones is not necessarily a new science, as Seeland points out, as there is already a considerable amount of research on it from aviation and industrial-robotics applications. What’s new, though, is the increasing interest some militaries in the technology, especially in the United States. Primordial Labs has previously stated that they are on contract with Special Operations Command to fold 100 additional autonomous behaviors into Anura this year.

Traditionally, manufacturers of autonomous systems have relied on visual processes, which Seeland says has led to concerns over greater cognitive burden for operators, reduced situational awareness, and increased time to make decisions.

“This reliance on the visual system is not unexpected as the acoustic environments for many of our customers are not conducive to auditory exchange, but there are use cases for which it is incredibly well-suited,” Seeland said.

These could include alerting a user of changing or critical information while simultaneously providing instructions and suggestions as to what actions to take. Additionally, it can benefit operators wishing to fly their drones hands-free, enabling them to operate multiple missions and helping to reduce human error.

Relying on voice commanding can also be effective for transmitting and receiving a high density of information quickly and intuitively, the Teledyne official added.

Talking back

The development and integration of voice controls into drones remains at an early stage, in need of additional operational testing.

For Teledyne, fitting the Black Hornet with Anura “is a technology demo, not a finished product … and a good capability demonstrator for future requirements,” Seeland stated. He added that feedback received from the company’s user community indicates they’d like to see the technology more tightly integrated with the rest of the Black Hornet system.

Currently, the scope of spoken orders for the software is rather simple – route reconnaissance, carrying out diverse survey methods in a given zone, or circling a point.

A potential add-on the companies are envisioning is a talk-back capability, where the drone would be able to respond to its operator about what it perceives based on an object-recognition program. At this stage, however, there is no timeframe for when this might happen, said Seeland.

Lost in translation

While industry experts seem to agree that the prospect for voice-guided drones to become operational is somewhat near, they argue that it could take some time for them to be acquired by militaries.

“I agree that we’re not decades away, but likely still severely years from adoption by conventional forces,” Matt McCrann, the U.S. subsidiary’s CEO of Australia-based DroneShield, said.

An important element to consider is that the level of interest in this capability will vary, as pointed out by Yoav Poizner, the head of business development at the Israeli firm Elbit Systems. Some less-developed armies are only now beginning to procure modern communication systems, which means voice-controlled drones might not be a priority.

“It might be that this new technology could be right around the corner, but it could also be something customers are not looking for,” Poizner told Defense News in an interview.

Steering drones via voice commands is one of the many machine-intelligence capabilities Elbit is investigating for its Legion X application, a system designed to link several unmanned systems using artificial intelligence.

Bendett, the defense analyst, concurs that although the capability could prove to be convenient, every operator works in a unique way – some may prefer to work as they do now, using visual modalities, while others would be satisfied having a drone communicate back using an actual voice.

Another challenge he highlights is related to the possibility for some users to get emotionally attached to their systems.

“Some are getting attached to their drones as if they were their actual comrades – we are seeing that language used by some Russian bloggers,” he said. “So, if your drone is talking to you as if it is human, and then is lost, that can potentially add a psychological trauma for operators,” Bendett said.

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.

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