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Next Generation Autonomous Systems: Final Report - Dr Robbin Laird

Dr Robbin Laird, Next Generation Autonomous Systems: A Williams Foundation Special Report, 9 June 2021

In this report, the key themes and presentations at the April 8, 2021,

Williams Foundation seminar on Next Generation Autonomous Systems

are highlighted. A number of interviews with participants are included as

well as insights from earlier interviews from pre-COVID visits to


In addition, selected articles are included in an appendix which address

the question of shaping a way ahead with regard to manned-unmanned

teaming and the coming of autonomous systems.

The original seminar was scheduled for March 2020 but was postponed

due to COVID-19.

Download the report here

Download PDF • 6.22MB

From the author

On April 8, 2021, the Williams Foundation held a seminar originally scheduled for last March.

It was postponed as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

As Air Marshal (Retired) Geoff Brown, Chairman of the Williams Foundation put it in his prologue to the conference:

“Since 2013 the Sir Richard Williams Foundation conferences have focused on building an integrated fifth generation force. Recent conferences have evolved from the acquisition of new platforms to the process of shaping and better understanding the environment in which that integrated force will prepare and operate. Highlighted have been the challenges of making the strategic shift from counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to higher tempo and higher intensity Joint operations involving peer competitors.

“Within this context, the 2021 conferences further develop the ideas associated with an increasingly sophisticated approach to Joint warfighting and power projection as we face increasing pressure to maintain influence and a capability edge in the region. The Williams Foundation will continue to look at the evolution of the Australian Defence Force from the perspective of the sovereign lens and setting the conditions for future success.

“This conference will explore the force multiplying capability and increasingly complex requirements associated with unmanned systems. From its origins at the platform level, the opportunities and potential of increased autonomy across the enterprise are now expected to fundamentally transform Joint and Coalition operations. Defence industry can and will play a major part in the transformation with opportunities extending beyond platforms to the payloads and enabling systems which underpin the necessary risk management and assurance frameworks demanded by Defence. The importance of industry is reflected in the design of the conference program and the speakers identified.”

The introduction to the program highlighted the focus of the seminar as follows:

“The concept of the Unmanned Air System (UAS), or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), is nothing new nor is their use in missions which traditionally challenge human performance, fragility, and endurance. Ongoing operational experience confirms unmanned systems on their own are not the panacea and trusted autonomy in manned and unmanned teaming arrangements in each environmental domain is emerging as a key operational requirement.

“The narrative has progressed the argument for greater numbers of unmanned systems in a far more mature and balanced way than hitherto. The manned-unmanned narrative is now sensibly shifting towards ‘and’, rather than ‘or’. Manned and unmanned teaming leverages the strengths and mitigates the weakness of each platform and concentrates the mind on the important operational aspects, such as imaginative new roles, and the challenges of integration to generate the desired overwhelming firepower.

“This capability will require a complex web of advanced data links and communication systems to make it operate as a combat system. Designing and building the ‘kill web’ so that it can enable the delivery of manned-unmanned firepower across domains will be a huge challenge not least due to the laws of physics. However, the ability to train, test, evaluate and validate tactics and procedures will add a whole new level of complexity to generate the ‘trusted autonomy’ required for warfighting.

“The aim of the April 2021 conference is to promote discussion about the future implications of autonomous systems. It will investigate potential roles for autonomous systems set within the context of each environmental domain, providing Service Chiefs with an opportunity to present their personal perspective on the effect it will have on their Service.

“The conference will also explore the operational aspects of autonomous systems, including command and control and the legal and social implications that affect their employment. And finally the conference will examine the current research agenda and allow industry an opportunity to provide their perspective on recent developments in unmanned air, land, surface and sub-surface combatants.”

The final report is being issued today (June 9, 2021) after there was a chance to review the materials presented, including videos, briefing slides and presentation documents.

In addition, a number of interviews with presenters were conducted as well to shape the narrative to pull together the various presentation strands.

The ADF is already undergoing a transition to shaping a distributed integrated force.

Next Generation Autonomous Systems can provide a further set of capabilities for a more effective, dense, survivable and capable ADF as it builds out for operations in the Indo-Pacific region and enhances its defense of the Australian continent.

The e-book version can be found here:


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