Flocking ScanEagles

When it comes to operating UAVs, six heads aren’t better than one.

Putting away a ScanEagle after a flight over the Al Anbar Province of Iraq in August 2006. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Chad McMeen)
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Teamed with an optical tracking program called Stalker, DI-CD kept monitoring the truck as it made several abrupt turns, stops, and starts to evade detection. The software automatically adjusted the ScanEagles’ flight path to optimize viewing angles, while staying out of sight. A human operator would find it difficult or impossible to keep a ScanEagle fixed on a weaving vehicle while manually plugging in waypoints.

Advances like DI-CD are fulfilling the early promise of UAVs, says Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “When you put more than one of these in the air, that’s where you really multiply your capabilities,” he says. And with a single controller operating several aircraft at once, the cost of staffing and training comes down. Davidson says it’s a sign of things to come, inside and outside the Pentagon. “Fifteen years ago it was like pulling teeth to get the services to operate UAVs in theater.…Now customers are demanding as many as they can get.”

A key programming hurdle that still needs to be overcome is collision avoidance. Eventually, though, Davidson and other UAV believers say robotic sensors will be better at this job than the human eye. “The technology exists, just not in the right format, that will make unmanned aircraft safer than manned,” he says.

In the meantime, Williams and his Boeing team are trying to widen the variety of hardware that can work under one brain. He thinks a rotorcraft UAV, paired with a ScanEagle and some sort of watercraft, may be the next big demonstration. Either way, it will be a real-world test. “A lot of competitors show lots of PowerPoint charts and cool stuff in simulators,” he says. “It’s a lot harder to go and demonstrate it with flying assets.”

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