A United Nations investigation into March 2020 skirmishes in the military conflict in Libya says “autonomous” drones were used on the battlefield and in the city, reports NPR.
Military-grade lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) are self-controlling drones that can fly themselves to a specific location, pick their own targets and kill them without the assistance of a remote human operator.
Such weapons have long been in development, but until recently there were no reported cases of autonomous drones killing fighters on the battlefield or in the city.
The assault came in Libya, during fighting between the UN-recognised Government of National Accord and forces aligned with General Khalifa Haftar.
“Logistics convoys and retreating Haftar-affiliated forces were hunted down and remotely engaged by LAWS such as the Kargu-2 and other loitering munitions,” the UN report said.
The Kargu-2 is an attack drone made by the Turkish company STM that can be operated both autonomously and manually and that purports to use “machine learning” and “real-time image processing” against its targets.
“The weapons were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity with an operator. In effect, a true fire and forget capability,” said the report.
In the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, STM CEO Murat Ikinci said that his company’s kamikaze drones “all have artificial intelligence and face recognition systems”.
Weighing less than 70kg each, they have a range of 15km and can stay in the air for 30 minutes carrying explosives. Kargu drones can also operate as a coordinated swarm of 30 units which cannot be stopped by advanced air defence systems.
For years, military forces and rebel groups have used drones to kill combatants and destroy physical targets. Last month, the Israel Defense Forces reportedly used drones to drop tear gas on protesters in Gaza, while Hamas launched loitering munitions – so-called kamikaze drones – into Israel.
What’s new about the deployment in Libya, if confirmed, is that the drones that were used had the capacity to operate autonomously, which means there was no human controlling them.
These weapons are essentially “killer robots”, formerly the stuff of science fiction.
In response to the new UN report, Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Max Tegmark tweeted, “Killer robot proliferation has begun. It’s not in humanity’s best interest that cheap #slaughterbots are mass-produced and widely available to anyone with an axe to grind. It’s high time for world leaders to step up and take a stand.”