*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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After it has landed on the noisy flight deck, the X-47B will need two pairs of helping hands. One will belong to a “yellow-shirt,” the standard flight deck crewman who directs pilots of manned aircraft. The yellow-shirt will face the UCAV and perform standard hand signals, while a second crewman will stand behind the yellow-shirt with a remote, watch his commands, then taxi the UCAV with the remote. That remote will be fixed to the crewman’s arm for hands-free efficiency.

Going a step further, Cummings’ MIT team hopes to do away with the remote. The team is developing an advanced technology similar to that used in Microsoft’s Kinect for the Xbox 360 video game. A sensor aboard the UCAV would theoretically see and follow yellow-shirts’ arm movements without anyone wearing a remote. Taxiing across busy decks, the aircraft would track the right person and duplicate the human faith that yellow-shirts and pilots now place in one another, says Yale Song, a graduate student in computer science in Cummings’ lab. “This is about what it means for a robot to communicate with people in a more natural way,” he says. “How do you build that trust that communication depends on?”

Admiral Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations, wants to see humans and UCAVs working operationally together by 2018. Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work, a former Marine commander, even co-authored a report a few years ago suggesting that the Navy’s next aircraft carrier could carry UAVs only.

A typical mission scenario doesn’t exist yet. But an operational version of the X-47B would likely take on long-distance, long-duration, long-odds missions that would be difficult or dangerous for pilots. While the UCAV is a demonstrator with no working weapons, military planners foresee its descendants providing 24/7 surveillance and limited attacks in contested airspace, or leading manned aircraft into battle zones. Phantom Ray program manager Craig Brown says that as a pilot, he would instruct loyal UCAVs to stay “out in front of me and launch missiles for me to see if I can get opposing forces to show their hand.”

The Navy and Air Force are funding Cummings’ lab to help smooth the transition from piloted aircraft to robots. Her team is also designing a digital overhaul of the low-tech “ouija board,” a tabletop model of the flight deck that crews fill with tiny airplanes to track deck operations. Computers could take over some of these logistics to improve overall efficiency and safety. Humans and automation “build a better schedule together than either one would on their own,” says Jason Ryan, a graduate student researcher developing the deck management system. But he adds that it all depends on the quality of the decisions made by the human operator, the algorithm, and the interaction between the two.

Every fighter pilot gets a call sign, usually from a play on his or her name or by doing something really stupid. If the UCAV gets a call sign, chances are it won’t be for the latter.

Michael Milstein is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

About Michael Milstein

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

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