How A Computer Pilot Helps Elite F-16 Fighter Jets Avoid Collisions

U.S. Air Force

How A Computer Pilot Helps Elite F-16 Fighter Jets Avoid Collisions

These high-tech programs use sensors, networking, and AI to help military aircraft avoid crashing into the groud or hitting another plane.

The Air Force F-16 jet fighter has been on the forefront of the Air Force’s multi-year effort to use new life-saving collision avoidance technology, an effort which relies upon automated computing, advanced algorithms and navigational mapping technology to avert potentially fatal crashes with the ground, nearby terrain or even buildings.

It’s called the Ground Collision Avoidance Technology, or GCAT, a series of advanced computer programs enabling the aircraft to adjust course and avoid a collision with the ground in the event that a pilot is injured or incapacitated. GCAT, which senior Air Force officials say is already saving lives on board F-16s, is now also being installed on the F-35 stealth fighter jet and other aircraft across the service. Using advanced computer automation, the GCAT system is able to calculate where the aircraft is and the particular flight trajectory placing it on a collision course with the ground. The technology calculates where the aircraft is in relation to its flight path and nearby obstacles as part of a move to temporarily take over and re-route the plane. With GCAT, an aircraft on a collision course can automatically be re-routed to avoid impact.

The promise of automated ground-collision avoidance has also, for many years now, been inspiring the Air Force Research Laboratory to pursue the even more complex challenge of preventing air collisions. The technology, called Air Automatic Collision Avoidance System, (ACAS) is being specifically developed to automatically give computers flight control of an F-16, once it flies to within 500-feet or less than another aircraft. The computer systems are integrated with data links, sensors and other communications technologies to divert soon-to-crash aircraft.

Air Force Research Laboratory officials told The National Interest earlier in the research process that the intent was to engineer a “cooperative data link” to transfer data at 20Herz to coordinate with other aircraft and agree upon cooperative maneuvers as may be necessary. Also drawing upon Inertial Navigation Systems technology, the ACAS technology can rely upon advanced computer algorithms to send over a “track file” to other aircraft in the area and therefore potentially avert a catastrophic mid-air collision.

Testing and development of the technology has been underway for several years now, and the Air Force has conducted nineteen “two-ship” flights and one “three ship” flights using the system to prevent collisions.

These kinds of applications could indeed be quite significant, given that high-speed F-16s might encounter threat scenarios wherein there could be a need to deconflict maneuvers and avoid collisions with allied aircraft through the use of cutting-edge networking, computer automation and automatic rerouting to avert any damages.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.