On October 13th, the ground-breaking website and publication New Scientist uncovered evidence that Ukraine has been utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) to guide its attack drones. This would make them the first nation to develop and use fully autonomous weapons. Given the drone type, they could have been occupied, and that would make them the first Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS).
To get more specific, the drone they used is called a Saker Scout. Developed in Ukraine, the drone breaks down quickly and folds up to about the size of a small suitcase. Founded in 2021, Saker was built to devise commercial AI and drone solutions. Once Russia invaded in February 2022, they pivoted. Much like Ford in WWII, they shut off their commercial and consumer lines and focused on making machines for battle. Named after the Saker hunting bird, this is an optimal mission for the company.
Initially hitting the battlefield in September 2023, the Scout is the epitome of military readiness with its no-frills approach. Stripped down to a camera hanging from its underside and explosives on its back, the onboard AI system takes care of everything. Using recon drones to navigate where enemy combatants and equipment are located, it radios back to attack drones’ locations and details. Little time is wasted, and the munitions are on the way. Fully networked together, should one fail or get taken out, another can fall right into place.
By taking out any need to connect back to humans or include radar or laser jamming equipment, the drones fly faster, easier, and with much less risk of being detected. This keeps human assets safe and secure off the front lines and makes it nearly impossible to jam their comms signals.
As New Scientist also noted, these drones could still be piloted by humans like a regular drone, and with the AI systems choose what to attack. The onboard system can detect, identify, and confirm 64 different Russian “military objects.” Once they decide to attack, in go the bomb carrying drones. A Ukrainian situational awareness computer system simply called Delta collects the data and runs it in real-time. Using true-to-life maps of the battlefield that are consistently updated, they can collect the data from sensors and video to make complex calculations at a moment’s notice.
Many experts wonder if this is an intelligent decision, as this could be incredibly hard to walk back.
With their ability to lock in and fire without human engagement, they pose a significant risk of misidentifying targets and potentially engaging the wrong target or groups. There is also rising concern about drones from each side attacking one another and nobody being able to interfere and stop the attacks. Given their lightning-quick reflexes and response, this is a real and thorough concern to be having.
Speaking with New Scientist, a Saker spokesman downplayed their achievements a bit. They openly admit that “using the drone in autonomous mode is less reliable than having a human in the loop.” So far, they are okay with the results, especially as those on the ground felt it was “more important to deploy a weapon that worked now, rather than waiting until it was perfect.”
While there were rumors of AI weapons in Libya back in 2020, and even in use by Russia earlier in their conflict with Ukraine, none have been documented sending rounds down range. This quiet walking back of such a situation isn’t the biggest surprise in the world. The Russians have been committing war crimes since the start of the conflict, and they wanted to hide anything they could get in trouble for. This one, though, is a crowning achievement for Ukraine, even if it ends up killing us all.