This Israeli-made killing racing drone is a nightmare for some

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Last week, an Israeli defense company painted a frightening picture. In a nearly two-minute YouTube video that resembles an action movie, soldiers on a mission are suddenly hit by enemy fire and call for help.

In response, a small drone zipped over to his mother ship to the rescue, zooming behind the enemy soldiers and quickly killed them. While the situation is fake, the drone — unveiled last week by Israel-based Elbit Systems — is not.

Lanius, which in Latin can refer to butcherbirds, represents a new generation of drones: agile, wired with artificial intelligence, and capable of scouting and killing. The engine is based on the design of the racing drone, which allows it to maneuver into tight spaces, such as alleyways and small buildings.

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The company’s promotional content touts its upgrades. After being sent into battle, Lanius’ algorithm can create a map of the scene and scan the crowd, distinguishing enemies from allies – feeding all the data back to the soldiers who can only to push a button to attack or kill what they want.

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For weapons critics, that represents a dire scenario, one that could change the dynamics of the war.

“It’s very worrying,” said Catherine Connolly, a firearms expert at Stop Killer Robots, an anti-gun advocacy group. “It’s basically just letting the machine decide whether you live or die if we remove the human control element for that.”

Representatives from Elbit Systems did not return a request for comment.

The use of drones in warfare is becoming commonplace. The United States’ arsenal of drones is responsible for enemy and civilian deaths in the Middle East. In Russia’s war against Ukraine, Moscow has been seen using killer drones that can divebomb targets, destroying them with little notice.

Drones big and small have made an impact in the war. Notably, Ukraine’s use of the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 – a drone the size of a small plane and equipped with laser-guided missiles – has damaged Russian tanks and trucks.

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For arms manufacturers, that provides an attractive target.

Elbit Systems, located outside of Haifa, Israel, says the promotional content its Lanius is equipped with features that are especially helpful in urban combat settings, where troops cannot see their enemy.

According to the drone’s data sheet, the drone is the size of a palm, roughly 11 inches by 6 inches. It has a top speed of 45 miles per hour. It can fly for about 7 minutes, and has the ability to carry both lethal and non-lethal materials. It is not clear how lethal the deadly materials are.

The drone is equipped with WiFi and radio technology for communication. It can maneuver using GPS navigation, and the drone’s onboard artificial intelligence system can scan and map urban war zones, feeding soldiers a 3D map of its surroundings.

The drone’s autonomous software helps with “enemy detection and classification,” according to the company, aiding in “lethal ambushes.”

The company says the drone cannot decide to kill a person by itself and needs a “human-in-the-loop” to make the decision and pull the trigger.

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However, Stop Killer Robots’ Connolly has more concerns.

The part that requires people to be involved in a killing decision can be done will be overridden, he said. “The change that might just require a software upgrade,” Connolly added. “There is … absolutely nothing to prevent the manufacturer from doing that or from a lawyer or agent buying these systems asking them to do that.”

Lanius’ ability to use algorithms to distinguish enemies from allies seems worrisome, he said. The general public needs to know how the drone distinguishes between combatant and civilian, what data the system’s algorithm is trained on to make the calls, who there flagging the data used, and what kind of behavior is flagged as making someone seem threatening, he said.

“It basically just shows that systems now can do everything but decide, using an algorithm … to take human life,” he said.

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