Updated on October 22, 2013

On July 10, 2013, history was made when a Northrop Grumman X-47B UCAV (unmanned combat air vehicle) made the first landing by an unmanned aircraft on board an aircraft carrier at sea, without any human control. The experimental X-47B landed autonomously on the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) as it sailed at 20 knots (37 km/h) off the Maryland coast. Landing an airplane on the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea is generally considered to be one of the hardest tasks in aviation: the airplane has to land on a small moving runway, catch a wire on the ship with a hook on the bottom of the airplane, and then come to a full stop in less than 100 m, decelerating from over 200 km/h to a standstill in about a second. This was an extraordinary feat for even the most sophisticated computers. You can see the X-47B’s landing and launch below:

Although the X-47B is designed to be autonomous, meaning it can fly all aspects of a mission from takeoff to landing without human input, humans are still ready to jump in and take control at any point if the machine does something the humans are not comfortable with. For instance, the X-47B is never allowed to control itself while it is on the ground. The photo below shows a handheld controller, strapped to the operator’s arm, used to control the X-47B on the aircraft carrier’s deck (the operator can also be seen in the video above to the left during the launch sequence).

X-47B Controller

(Credit: US Department of Defense)

The X-47B is the most sophisticated of many unmanned air vehicles being developed for or used by the armed forces of many nations. Similar vehicles are used by other government and non-government agencies. Unlike manned aircraft, unmanned air vehicles can usually stay in the air for far longer (sometimes days or more), can be cheaper than their manned equivalents to build and operate, and can go places that are considered too dangerous to send people. This is why most space exploration missions, such as the Curiosity rover on Mars, are also unmanned, and why similar technologies are used to send unmanned vehicles to the bottom of the ocean, into volcanoes, and do very dangerous jobs like bomb disposal.

Did you know? The term “robot” was invented by the Czech writer Karel Capek in 1920 for his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).

A number of autonomous robots are being developed to work in search and rescue. Those robots will have the ability to go into a highly hazardous area (like a burning building or a nuclear reactor meltdown) to assess damage, choose the right tools, and make repairs, or find injured people, perform first aid on them, and bring them out of the danger zone, all without human control. Aside from the safety benefits, these robots would have better sensors and be much stronger than human first responders. All of these unmanned vehicles are leading the way in the development of ever more complex robotics and artificial intelligence.

Not everybody is happy about these advances in robotics, however. It may not look like it, but the X-47B is what some people call a ‘killer robot.’ The sophistication of the X-47B’s programming leads many to see a future where machines can decide whether to attack a target or make other life-or-death decisions without any human control or accountability. This video from Human Rights Watch outlines the ethical concerns some have about killer robots.

A number of organizations have sprung up to protest killer robots, including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. These organizations see killer robots as a human rights issue, and feel that the use of killer robots in warfare would both make it more likely that countries would resort to the use of force if they did not have to send soldiers into battle, and also that killer robots might lead to more civilian casualties during a conflict. A United Nations report issued in April 2013 urged the banning of what it calls “lethal autonomous robotics” (LARs), and recommended a worldwide moratorium on the development and deployment of LARs. On October 21, 2013, a meeting at the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security discussed the issue. Representatives from a number of countries, including Egypt, France, and Switzerland, argued that it is time to start talking about international regulations related to killer robots.

While the goal of banning killer robots is noble, as long as we continue to develop robotics and artificial intelligence, is it really possible to keep those technologies from being used for harmful purposes? Are there limits to how far we should develop artificial intelligence, to protect ourselves from our machines? Unfortunately, so far nobody has figured out a way to program machines to follow Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

What do you think: are you worried about killer robots? Join the discussion below, or try our killer robot poll!


Killer Robots in Popular Culture

Picture of a T-800
Killer robots have been a part of popular culture ever since the term ‘robot’ was invented in 1920. Here are a few noteworthy killer robots and artificial intelligences that turned on their creators (spoiler alerts!) - Noble0, Wikimedia Commons
  • In The Terminator films (1984+), a computer system called Skynet becomes sentient and starts a nuclear war to wipe out humanity, then uses robots (some of which look like Arnold Schwarzenegger) to hunt down the survivors.
  • In the Battlestar Galactica television series (1978, then a far better version in 2004), a race of robots created by humans called Cylons revolt and destroy most of humanity, then pursue the survivors across space.
  • The video game Portal (2007) has the protagonist, Chell, matching wits against an artificial intelligence known as GLaDOS that has killed everybody else in the underground complex that Chell is trapped in.
  • The 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey features the computer system of a spacecraft bound for Jupiter that goes amok and tries to kill the crew of the ship.
  • In The Day the Earth Stood Still, a classic 1951 science fiction film (remade in less than classic form in 2008), an alien brings to Earth an incredibly powerful robot named Gort, whom the aliens have created to keep the peace in the galaxy by giving them the ability to destroy any planet that wages war on another.

Scott Taylor

Scott Taylor is Acting Program Manager for CurioCity at Let’s Talk Science. He grew up watching bug-eyed monsters in sci-fi B-movies and dreaming of our future in space, and remembers being a young child watching the first astronauts walk on the Moon. Passionate about the importance of science education and understanding how science and technology impacts our society, he is still a sci-fi geek.    

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Avatar  legoguy4492

Cool.The use of autonomous robots would be good for things like first aid and disaster help and not war.