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Those cheap drones used for extreme sports? The Pentagon wants them, too

A drone flies outside of the Aeryon Labs Inc. headquarters in Waterloo, Ontario, on April 14, 2016.

JAMES MACDONALD/BLOOMBERG

By CAT ZAKRZEWSKI | The Washington Post | Published: December 4, 2018

The Pentagon wants to bring the same low-cost drone technology behind aerial wedding photos or extreme skiing videos to the battlefield. But it needs the private sector’s help to do so at a time of rising tension between Silicon Valley and Washington.

Defense officials hope the new initiative, dubbed “Project Phoenix,” will help jump-start cooperation with the tech industry, which has been grappling with a groundswell of moral objections to the use — or potential misuse — of their innovations for warfare.

But the Pentagon wants to convert the disbelievers. Orin Hoffman, who is running Project Phoenix, called on companies — especially tech start-ups — to submit proposals for drone technology that is so inexpensive that troops can spy on enemies without worrying about damaging or losing the drones. The Defense Innovation Unit is reviewing proposals for physical drones as well as software that would produce 3-D maps or would allow the drones to fly indoors.

Consumer drones “bring great capability not just for filming you doing extreme sports, but also for battlefield surveillance and reconnaissance,” Hoffman said in an exclusive interview, the first time DIU has commented publicly on the new drone initiative. “You now have under $1,000 drones that are capable of fully autonomous flight through a battle space which 10 years ago was really reserved for only very expensive DOD assets.”

But winning hearts and minds in Silicon Valley is a challenge: The new initiative comes after Google said it would pull out of a major contract with the Pentagon for an artificial intelligence program meant to analyze drone video, amid resounding ethical objections from its employees. The backlash creates a challenge for DIU, whose overall mission is to improve collaboration with the tech industry to bring cutting-edge innovations to the U.S. military.

Defense leaders recognize the Pentagon needs to do a better job this time convincing Silicon Valley that deploying their technology for war can be a good thing that keeps Americans safe.

“We didn’t do enough as the U.S. government and the Defense Department in articulating what are the stakes of not supporting the military,” DIU’s managing director, Mike Brown, said.

Those stakes in this case, according to these defense leaders, are high: U.S. troops have been “caught flat-footed” by adversaries throughout the Middle East who send cheap-yet-capable drones for surveillance of military movements — and even use them to drop small bombs. And other powers such as China are investing heavily in drone technology; Chinese tech company DJI is the king of the consumer drone market worldwide.

Brown compared the military’s technology race against China to the Cold War arms race against the Soviet Union. “If we’re not accessing what’s happening commercially in areas like artificial intelligence or what’s happening in drones, we’re not providing competitive capability for the military,” Brown said.

But here’s the rub: A lot of U.S. tech companies want to do business with China.

Peter Singer, a strategist at the New America think tank, said Silicon Valley companies’ concerns about working with the Pentagon go beyond ethics. “Reluctance in the Valley is not just queasiness with war or the like,” Singer said. “The China market is key to many of these companies’ future growth.”

Google has confirmed it is exploring a censored search engine for China, stoking concerns that its technology will enable the Chinese government to carry out human rights abuses. Google’s employees also are worried: More than 400 of them signed a public letter last week protesting the project.

All this has left lawmakers questioning why Google would return to the Chinese market while simultaneously pulling back from business with the Pentagon. They are virtually sure to press Google chief executive Sundar Pichai on this issue when they reschedule the hearing that was postponed this week due to President George H.W. Bush’s funeral.

Pichai has tried to smooth over tensions with military leaders, meeting with Pentagon officials during a September trip to Washington. But he’s walking a fine line trying to balance his employees’ concerns in a competitive job market with the desire to go after lucrative government contracts.

As the Washington Post’s Tony Romm and Drew Harwell have reported, “Google’s change of heart over Project Maven … has become a key source of tension between the tech giant and military officials, who felt that Google should have done a better job communicating that the technology could help keep military personnel out of harm’s way, according to a source familiar with the work. ‘Without a doubt, this has caused a lot of consternation inside the DoD,’ said Bob Work, the former deputy secretary of defense who helped launch Project Maven last year. ‘Google created a big moral hazard for itself by saying it doesn’t want to use any of its AI technology to take human life. But they didn’t say anything about the lives that could be saved.’ ”

Still, some competitors, such as Amazon, have responded with promises to continue to work with the Pentagon. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

Brown hopes that collaboration will be easier for Project Phoenix. Companies that are developing drone technology probably have considered the potential government and military applications for their technology — versus a company such as Google with roots as a search engine. Despite the Project Maven uproar, Brown stressed that DIU still receives many proposals from companies eager to work with the Pentagon. He said many companies view the partnership as patriotic.

Also in the Pentagon’s favor here, drone technology could come from smaller, nontraditional companies that might have a different set of priorities — and fewer employees — than a behemoth such as Google. And after all, DIU started under the Obama administration to help nontraditional companies such as start-ups navigate the complicated process of doing business with the government.

Major players such as Google “are trying to sell so much overseas and take advantage of the market in China that it gives them a different set of concerns than a smaller company that has a more focused business,” Brown said.

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