At the moment, multiple humans are often needed to control a single drone, and new algorithms increasing autonomy for drones could greatly change this ratio. Air Force scientists have explained a potential future scenario wherein one human is able to control 10 – or even 100 - drones.
The Air Force and DARPA are now testing new hardware and software configured to enable 4th-Generation aircraft to command drones from the cockpit in the air, bringing new levels of autonomy, more attack options and a host of new reconnaissance advantages to air warfare.
(This first appeared last month.)
Working with BAE Systems at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Air Force test pilots are combing ground-based simulators with airborne leer jets to demonstrate how 4th generation cockpit avionics can direct drones from the air, BAE Systems developers said.
“The airplane was structurally configured to allow us to take our autonomy hardware and connect it directly to the flight control system of the airplane,” Skip Stolz, Director of Strategic Development for Autonomy Control, told Warrior Maven in an interview.
Demonstrations with specially configured leer jets are intended as an interim step on route to integrating this kind of system into an operational F-15, F-16 or even F-35, developers said.
Using standard data-link technology, the jets operate with a semi-autonomous software called Distributed Battle Management, which enables new levels of compressed airborne data transfer, weapons integration and sensor operations, Stolz explained.
A recent Mitchell Institute paper, titled “Manned-Unmanned Aircraft Teaming: Taking Combat Airpower to the Next Level,” cites Distributed Battle Management software as a “system-of-systems future landscape for warfare, in which networks of manned and unmanned platforms, weapons, sensors and electronic warfare systems interact.”
The paper adds that DARPA and the Air Force Research Laboratory successfully tested DBM last year.
At the moment, the flight path, sensor payload and weapons disposal of airborne drones such as Air Force Predators, Global Hawks and Reapers are coordinated from ground control stations. However, due at least in part to rapid advances in autonomy, the concept of an autonomous or “semi-autonomous” wingman – is arriving even faster than expected.
DARPA, Air Force Research Laboratory and industry have been developing this concept for quite some time now. The current trajectory, or rapid evolution of processing speed and advanced algorithms is enabling rapid acceleration. A fighter-jet aircraft will be able to provide a drone with tasks and objectives, manage sensor payload and direct flight-path from the air.
For instance, real-time video feeds from the electro-optical/infrared sensors on board an Air Force Predator, Reaper or Global Hawk drone could go directly into an F-15, F-22 or F-35 cockpit, without needing to go to a ground control station. This could speed up targeting and tactical input from drones on reconnaissance missions in the vicinity of where a fighter pilot might want to attack. In fast-moving combat circumstances involving both air-to-air and air-to-ground threats, increased speed could make a large difference.
The Mitchell Institute essay also points to a less-frequently discussed, yet highly significant advantage offered by manned-unmanned teaming. Simply put, it could massively help mitigate the current Air Force bomber and fighter jet shortage. It is often mentioned that there simply are not enough Air Force assets available to meet current demand. As a result, having a massive fleet of fighter-jet operated drones could radically increase the operational scope of Air Force missions.
In particular, the Mitchell Institute paper mentions that ever since B-2 and F-22 production were cut well short of the initial intent years ago – the Air Force has since been forced to operate with insufficient air assets.
“A resource of 185 fighters (F-22s) and 20 bombers (B-2s) is fundamentally limited in world where their capabilities are in high demand. Airmen and their aircraft, no matter how well trained or technologically advanced, cannot be in two places at once,” the paper writes.
Fighter-jet controlled drones could also be programmed to fly into heavily defended or high-risk areas ahead of manned-fighter jets in order to assess enemy air defenses and reduce risk to pilots. Furthermore, given the fast-evolving efficacy of modern air-defenses, drones could fly into high-threat or heavily contested areas to conduct ISR, scout enemy assets and even function as a weapons truck to attack enemy targets.
Advances in computer power, processing speed and AI are rapidly changing the scope of what platforms are able to perform without needing human intervention. This is mostly developing in the form of what Air Force scientists describe as “decision aide support,” meaning machines will be able to better interpret, organize, analyze and communicate information to a much greater extent – without have humans manage each individual task.
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