It’s Day 2 of AUVSI’s Xponential Conference in Denver, and at today’s keynote address industry leaders went big: talking about questions of how drones may totally change the world as we know it. (For the better, mostly.)
“The age of AI, digital connectivity, automation and intelligent machines has arrived. Even though the “Jetson lifestyle” isn’t upon us just yet, technology advancements have drastically changed our lives in just a few short years,” says Xponential; and it’s true.
In a Driverless Car, Who’s Responsible?
The keynotes kicked off with Dr. Zeynep Tufekci, Associate Professor at the School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina. Tufekci’s research centers around the intersection of technology and society. She began her talk by pointing out that computer science is in the midst of a number of ethical conflicts – the destabilization of democracies being only one of them. “Transitions,” says Tufekci, “can be tough.”
“We think of how everything will be different,” she points out, “but we don’t often think about how it will change the social order.” One big problem with autonomous systems is accountability – new systems aren’t really being programmed, they’re learning on their own after we feed them data. “That makes them kind of opaque to us,” says Tufekci. “That makes accountability really complicated…We have to have new ways of thinking about accountability and safety.”
Tufekci points out that driverless vehicles will almost certainly improve safety – “How can you be less safe than human drivers?” she laughs – but that there will be edge examples that bring up new issues for society to consider. Safety and security, she says are key – without paying attention to those issues we won’t be able to enjoy the benefits of autonomous systems.
Saving Lives with Autonomous Systems
Next up was Eduardo Martinez, President of UPS Foundation and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. Martinez lightened up the mood with a discussion of how autonomous systems were saving lives.
Last year, says Martinez, UPS responded to more than 26 disasters. Maintaining a stable supply chain is critical to saving lives, he points out, and UPS has been instrumental in helping after supply chains have been broken.
Autonomous systems are an important piece. “The last mile to get to people in desperate circumstances is often the most difficult,” says Martinez. “That’s where drones are the most useful.” UPS has built public and private partnerships with companies like MA-based drone company CyPhy Works and the American Red Cross to help. Launched during Hurricane Harvey, the partnership successfully surveyed the disaster-struck areas.
Since then, UPS has partnered with drone delivery pioneers Zipline and vaccination providers Gavi to provide vaccinations to Rwandan children. The combination of UPS’ deep understanding of logistics with Zipline’s technology and Gavi’s vaccination and medical expertise has created a system that is dramatically successful and inspiring. The program has already saved thousands of lives – and this year the UPS Foundation will expand the program to reach the entire population of Rwanda and hopes to bring the program to other countries.
“We’re learning as we go,” says Martinez. “But these autonomous solutions represent a breakthrough.”
The final speaker of the morning session was Stephanie Hill, Senior VP Corporate Strategy at Lockheed Martin. Hill described rescue operations and other lifesaving applications performed by humans in collaboration with autonomous systems.
Hill’s vision of autonomous systems is one of total collaboration and cooperation with human operators in order to optimize and improve performance. “Humans are learning to trust these systems,” she says. “As the capability of these systems grow, they will enable humans to do more.”
Lockheed believes that unmanned aircraft can make concrete and measurable improvements in situations like wildfires, where drone technology may actually shorten the duration of a fire by enabling 24-hour firefighting . “You can reduce risks, you can cut costs – but most importantly, you can save lives,” says Hill.
With countless examples of Lockheed Martin aircraft assisting at disasters, it’s a compelling vision – and one that is developing and expanding constantly. “We envision that the autonomous technology that we are developing will someday be available on all of our aircraft,” says Hill.
“At Lockheed Martin, we say that autonomy is not human-less – it’s human more.”