Where the Navy goes, it doesn’t need roads. It does need road maps, however, and as incongruous as a metaphor about terrestrial travel is for a maritime military, the Navy’s Strategic Roadmap for Unmanned Systems offers a guide to the sailor-less seas of the future.

The road map was formally signed in March, with a summary released in May. From this rough outline we can spot three trends: robots will fight alongside sailors, not replace them; that robots will be developed alongside the laws governing autonomous weapons; and to get robots as quickly as they’re developed, the Navy will need to rethink acquisitions.

Robots alongside people, not replacing people

“Unmanned and autonomous technologies will become a powerful and ubiquitous force multiplier in an integrated human-machine team. The combination will provide capabilities that far exceed the effectiveness of platforms or humans alone,” states the report. “The combination will provide capabilities that far exceed the effectiveness of platforms or humans alone.”

When we think of automation, and robots in general, we tend to think of them replacing people entirely, as though a mechanical person steps into the exact role. Hardly any robots come close to that, and even the ones that are much more autonomous are designed to augment human abilities, instead of entirely replacing humans.

It is a further degree of specialization: nothing about the job of tracking submarines at sea requires that humans be physically present, so if the Sea Hunter autonomous ship can do the job while humans remotely monitor the data it collects, all the better.

Humans augmented by machines have a lot of names in the Pentagon. One not mentioned in the Navy’s road map but relevant to the whole concept is “Centaur Warfighting,” borrowing the term “centaur” from chess, where it describes amateurs using computers to help plot moves that allow them to can defeat far more skilled humans playing on their own.

Autonomous robots are coming, and so are laws of robotics

Experiments with human/machine teaming date back to at least World War II. So what sort of tasks will the Navy ask of its robots?The Navy will eventually want robots that can use weapons for offensive purposes, of course.

The Navy will eventually want robots that can use weapons for offensive purposes, of course.

As framed in the road map, “capability developers must consider mission requirements, potential offensive use of existing threats, and governing law and policy,” which is phrased blandly enough that it obscures the lack of settled or even agreed-to law regarding autonomous weapons.

As the European Union looks to move forward with defense funding, it also sidestepped language prohibiting the development of autonomous weapons, instead deferring to the same unfinished deliberations of international law.

Rather than simply wait for the rules about autonomous weapons to be negotiated in their absence, however, the Navy notes that it should “influence policy and law regarding the use of weaponized [unmanned systems].” This will tackle the legality of the capabilities from both ends: making sure that the autonomous machines the Navy builds fall within the law is easier when the Navy is also actively shaping the law.

A related objective is promoting the national public acceptance of use of unmanned systems, which the road map notes will have to take into account public input on privacy, offensive use and safety.

Still, everything in this suggests the Navy is looking for some for some form of lethal autonomy, and the matter in question is not if it will employ autonomous weapons, but what type of autonomy those weapons will use. Provided, of course, that the Navy can actually get the machines made on time, which brings us to the third big takeaway.

Keeping pace with technology means faster acquisitions

No amount of theory or legal wrangling will mean anything for the Navy if it cannot move machine from concept to functional, deployable tool in time for the machines to be useful. A specific solution for the slowness of the acquisitions isn’t offered, and would be beyond the scope of this road map summary anyway, but the need for one is real and felt.

“Technological advancements are outpacing all aspects of acquisition, hindering insertion of innovative capabilities into the fleet and full realization of employment,” the road map states plainly, “Development and use of new policy must match the pace of technology and threats.”

The Navy is hardly alone in this; the Army is looking at ways to field imperfect but useful and upgradeable equipment for tasks like electronic warfare, rather than waiting for a perfect tool that ships after the adversary’s technology has moved on.

As for getting around the present obstacles to field new forms of useful autonomy, we can expect that is covered in more depth in the full road map; the summary notes that the Comprehensive Roadmap outlines 30 specific barriers to adoption of unmanned systems as desired, and likely those descriptions of barriers come with ways around them.

Until then, the summary tells us upfront that the Navy is not looking to replace sailors or Marines with robots, but rather augment them; that the Navy wants a hand in both shaping the laws around autonomous weapons and developing robots in accordance with those laws; and that all of this hinges on an ability to get around the current hurdles of acquisitions. Then, and only then, can the Navy get the drones its looking for.

The full text of the summary road map is available at USNI News.