The Development of an Autonomous Multirotor Drone in Conjunction with OptiTrack; Ethics of Autonomous Drones in Modern Warfare Through Just War Theory

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Kuzjak, Matthew, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Davis, William
Furukawa, Tomonari

The development of autonomous drone technology is rapidly advancing and is allowing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to make decisions without human oversight. However, the ethical ramifications of deploying fully autonomous drones, especially in military combat scenarios, raise critical sociotechnical questions that must be examined. This report will first detail my technical work on developing an autonomous quadrotor drone utilizing the OptiTrack motion capture system to achieve precise indoor navigation without requiring external sensors like GPS. Then I will explore the ethics of autonomous drones in modern warfare through the framework of Just War Theory's principles. Although my specific technical autonomous drone is not intended for military combat use, the general push toward autonomy motivates an analysis of the ethical concerns surrounding autonomous drones in warfare. In both classes, the goal was to create a foundation for further research on both the technical and sociotechnical sides.
The technical portion of my thesis began by creating a manually operated quadrotor drone from scratch. This entails building the frame, choosing appropriate motors and propellers, designing a power system, implementing a communication system, configuring the flight control software, and conducting testing and calibration. We then implemented basic autonomous flight that initially utilized GPS for outdoor positioning and optical flow sensors for indoor navigation without external cameras. However, the limitations of indoor GPS signal availability and the relatively low optical flow accuracy motivated the pursuit of a more robust navigation system. The final system produced an autonomous quadcopter drone capable of navigating indoor environments without reliance on GPS via OptiTrack motion capture system. The OptiTrack system tracks the drone's position during flight via markers on the drone and sends the real-time position to an algorithm in MAVProxy. This data from MAVProxy is fed to the drone’s flight controller running an autonomous navigation based on the velocity field path. Potential applications range from indoor infrastructure inspection to search and rescue in satellite-denied areas.
In my STS research, I analyzed the ethical implications of autonomous drones in military combat operations through the philosophical framework of Just War Theory. I examined whether fully autonomous drones can satisfy the criteria of just cause, right intention, proportionality, and discrimination in the absence of human judgment and moral reasoning. I identified key risk areas where autonomy could violate these standards, such as errors in discriminating civilians from combatants or dehumanization. Analyzing autonomous drone warfare through the STS lens illuminates how the technical capabilities of these systems are linked to broader organizational and cultural factors. The algorithms, sensors, and hardware that enable autonomous targeting represent the technical element. However, critically analyzing its ethical implications requires examining the military organizations and cultural philosophies surrounding its development and deployment. From an organizational standpoint, the policies, rules of engagement, oversight structures, and military doctrines will largely determine whether autonomous drones can satisfy the principles of Just War Theory.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Autonomous Drones

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering
Tomonari Furukawa
William Davis
Kendall Moore, Duc-Lo Nguyen, Yuvraj Singh, Luke McNabb

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