*Pilot Not Included

Military aviation prepares for the inevitable

Northrop Grumman’s portrait of the future for naval aviation: the X-47B on the runway in Palmdale, California. (Courtesy Northrop Grumman)
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In the Navy, UAVs had no natural champions to pull them along, says former pilot and rear admiral Tim Beard, who commanded the carrier John F. Kennedy. Now at Northrop Grumman, he has looked at ways to integrate UCAVs into the carrier environment. He knows pilots prefer airplanes they can climb into. He didn’t see the UAV revolution coming. “Officers on active duty are primarily engaged with day-to-day operations,” he says. “There is seldom the time or the wherewithal to be looking well into the future.” Now that he’s on the contractor side, he’s a big fan of UCAVs. “We have a huge training overhead [with pilots] that we just don’t have with a UAV. Over 90 percent of aviation flying is training. The beauty of an unmanned asset is that once the software is set, it doesn’t have to be retrained.”

“I spend a lot of time explaining to pilots that we’re not trying to get rid of their job—it’s just changing,” says Missy Cummings, the former Navy pilot who runs the Humans and Automation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her lab tries to help people and automation benefit from each other’s strengths and account for each other’s weaknesses. One of her grad students built an iPhone application to fly little robo-copters, and in three minutes taught people off the street how to use it. She says it could just as easily operate multi-million-dollar UAVs.

The lesson: Controlling an airplane just isn’t that hard anymore. Even airliners are increasingly hands-off. Cummings’ main point to pilots is that today, “you’re needed more importantly for your reasoning, for your knowledge—not for your monkey skills.”

Cummings speaks out often and loudly: As one of the Navy’s first female fighter pilots, she flew A-4s and F/A-18s and was carrier qualified, and later wrote a book about the male hostility she faced. Today she chides the “white-scarf” mentality in which fighter pilots reign supreme. As traditional pilot skills lose currency, she says, “the fighter pilot mafia is losing its control.”

As an example of when a pilot is needed on board, she points to the day in January 2009 when Chesley Sullenberger, a former Air Force fighter pilot, used his judgment to select the Hudson River to land his US Airways A320 after geese crippled his engines.

But Cummings’ research suggests that experienced pilots do not make the best UAV pilots. Dependent on cues from the buffeting of the wind, the telltale whine of the engine, or the shimmy of the airframe, they lose those cues when they go from the cockpit to a computer console, and crash more often than those with no piloting experience, she says.

This year, an Air Force squadron dedicated to training operators of remotely piloted aircraft enrolled its first class of officers directly from their commissioning, who “have no past experience to muddy the waters, no bad habits to break” according to their director of operations (the Air Force withholds their names for security reasons). They get their own wings too: The Air Force in 2009 designed pins for fliers of RPVs, and a different style for sensor operators.

Unmanned flying resembles the moon race, with technology and commercial uses advancing rapidly, says Mike Nelson, who was an F-16 and MQ-1 Predator instructor pilot in the Air National Guard. He’s now a guest lecturer in courses about unmanned systems at the University of North Dakota’s Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. Unmanned aviation represents the aerospace school’s fastest growing major. As for actually flying UAVs, which only the military teaches at qualified bases, it requires plenty of airmanship, Nelson says. The difference is, “your eyes have to tell you what the seat of your pants doesn’t.”

If UCAVs are going to prove themselves anywhere, a carrier deck will be the ultimate test. The Navy has a set of strict rules for safely rocketing multi-million-dollar jets off a floating airfield and landing them a minute apart. Nobody wants to mess with that. “We’re not coming into the environment to change it, but rather to fit into it seamlessly,” says Philip Saunders, Northrop Grumman’s chief engineer for the X-47B program. Like other carrier aircraft, the X-47B’s operational descendant will fold its wings to squeeze into the space. Secure data links will tie its computer to the ship’s primary air traffic control center, high above the deck.

A new navigation system will far outdo the Automatic Carrier Landing System of today, in which the piloted airplane constantly follows the rocking and bobbing of the ship. The X-47B will instead use Global Positioning System data to anticipate the ship’s movement and refine the flight path 20 times a second, about 40 times faster than a human can. Engineers say the new technology should put the airplane down an average of two feet from the centerline every time.

About Michael Milstein

Michael Milstein is a freelance writer who specializes in science. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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