U.S. Deploys AI-Assisted Targeting Maven, a system that analyzes satellite data to identify targets in real-world conflicts

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U.S. Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division, Combined Air Operations Center, AI Udeid Air Base, Qatar, 2017

The United States military is using computer vision to target enemy positions in the Red Sea and elsewhere.

What’s new: Maven, a system that analyzes satellite and geolocation data, has been used to identify targets in real-world conflicts, Bloomberg reported. The system was developed primarily by Palantir and integrates technology from Amazon, Microsoft, information technology firms ECS Federal and L3Harris, aerospace firms Maxar and Sierra Nevada, and other unnamed companies.

How it works: The 18th Airborne Corps, a U.S. Army unit organized for rapid deployment around the world, used Maven in live-fire training exercises. The system helped locate surface vessels in the Red Sea, rocket launchers in Yemen, and potential airstrike targets in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. used it to help Ukraine’s armed forces to locate Russian equipment, anonymous sources said. 

  • Maven melds various data streams into a top-down image of a geographic area. Satellites provide still images and video, and radar and infrared observations enable the system to see through clouds and other obstructions. It can also integrate non-visual information such as location data from mobile devices and social media posts.
  • Computer vision models identify military equipment such as aircraft and tanks, highlighting significant changes to object locations. They can register a buildup of equipment that may indicate a new, or newly active, military base. 
  • The system displays a map that outlines potential targets in yellow and friendly forces, schools, hospitals, and other no-strike zones outlined in blue. Human decision-makers review output and authorize responses.

Behind the news: Google initially developed Maven for the U.S. Defense Department around 2017. Palantir inherited the project after Google, facing protests by employees who did not want to contribute to government intelligence systems, declined to renew its contract in 2018. The U.S. military now has more than 800 active AI projects with a wide range of technology partners and contractors. Other countries are deploying similar technology: Israel and Ukraine have used AI-assisted targeting in their ongoing conflicts.

Yes, but: Some U.S. military experts worry about Maven’s accuracy. In tests, Maven successfully identified objects about 60 percent of the time, while human analysts working with the 18th Airborne Corps did so 84 percent of time. Moreover, the system’s training data emphasizes deserts, and its success rate drops in other types of environments.

Why it matters: Maven and similar systems offer some advantages over human analysts. They can observe and integrate multiple data streams simultaneously, and they can identify potential targets much more quickly. It’s likely that more data will make these systems more accurate. On the other hand, they represent a further step toward automated warfare in which automated assistance could come to displace human decision-making. 

We’re thinking: Automated targeting is increasingly used in military applications, and less-sophisticated systems have been in use for decades. However, humans should always be in control of decisions to fire. We support a global ban on fully autonomous weapons.


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