Legislation moving through the House would provide millions of dollars for research on how to incorporate artificial intelligence into drone technology in an effort to keep the U.S. ahead of China in this increasingly important component of national security.
The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology last week approved legislation from committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., that he says needs to pass before China becomes locked in as the world’s major supplier of drones. His bill, the National Drone and Advanced Air Mobility Research and Development Act, would fund about $1.6 billion in research over the next five years to give a boost to U.S.-based drone manufacturers.
“To say China has cornered this market is an understatement,” Lucas said last week. “One single company with extensive ties to the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army produces 80% of the drones used recreationally in the U.S.”
Lucas added that 90% of local and regional public safety agencies in the U.S. are using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) made in China, which could pose a threat down the line because they have the capability of tracking user data.
The bill gives NASA, the Department of Homeland Security and several scientific agencies the authority to provide new grant funding for drone and advanced air mobility research. It also directs these agencies to fund research into how AI and machine learning can boost drone capabilities.
Dr. Jamey Jacob is the executive director of the Oklahoma Aerospace Institute for Research and Education and director of the Counter-UAS Center of Excellence at Oklahoma State University. He told Fox News Digital this week that the U.S. and China are in a fierce competition when it comes to drone technology.
“It’s a fairly robust competition right now,” he said. “I still think that we’re solidly ahead on AI development in terms of the algorithms. In terms of inexpensive consumer-level drone technology, that’s where they’ve been able to take the lead.”
He added that while the U.S. has the edge on higher-end UAS technology, “China is really hot on our heels.”
AI capability is something that is already present in current drones made by both the U.S. and China but is something that both countries are likely to ramp up. Jacob said today’s drones with AI components are already capable of receiving visual input and using that input to prevent collisions with trees or other obstacles.
More powerful AI is expected to allow drones to navigate through hostile environments, including zones that don’t allow for GPS navigation.
“It’s really working on an active threat environment where you might have GPS denied, GPS spoofing or jamming going on, where the enemy is trying to make your drone think it’s somewhere where it’s really not, and the AI being able to take all this information in and figure out what’s good and what’s not,” he said.
So far, the Pentagon has said it wants to make sure that AI is used to help people make better military decisions. But Jacob said the possibility of using AI to give drones the capability to make decisions on when to deploy a weapon is already being talked about.
“We know it’s going to be possible, and it’s going to happen,” he said. “We are going to have the drones and the AI-driven autopilot systems be able to make those decisions more quickly than a human can.”
Last week, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology approved Lucas’s bill in a 36-0 vote, a sign that both Republicans and Democrats strongly support the idea of ramping up research into drones and advanced air mobility and that his bill could get a vote on the floor later this year.