Right now, the military’s largest unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the big, bad Predator and Reaper, are controlled via ground control stations. But according to the U.S. Air Force (USAF) Chief Scientist, groups of drones may soon be fully operated from the cockpits of advanced fighter jets flying nearby.
This technological advancement would enhance mission scope and effectiveness, enabling F-35 pilots to perform sensing, reconnaissance, and targeting functions with more weapons, sensors, and cargo at their immediate disposal.
“The more autonomy and intelligence you can put on these vehicles, the more useful they will become,” said USAF Chief Scientist Greg Zacharias.
For example, Predator, Reaper, or Global Hawk aircraft could send real-time video feeds to an F-35 cockpit without having to first transmit the information to a ground control station, speeding up the process in fast-moving combat situations where a fighter pilot may need to attack. In addition, drones could be programmed to fly into high-risk areas ahead of manned fighter jets in order to assess an enemy’s aerial defenses—and reducing threats to the pilots in the process.
Together, these advancements are what Zacharias refers to as “decision aide support,” meaning machines (in this instance, the drones) will be able to better interpret and communicate information without human-beings having to manage each individual task. Right now, multiple humans are required to control a single drone, but future algorithms may enable one human to control 10 (or even 100) unmanned aircraft.
Algorithms may one day even advance to the point where a Predator or Reaper could follow a fighter jet without needing personnel to first input the flight path.
“Decision aides will be in cockpit or on the ground and more platform oriented autonomous systems,” Zacharias said. “A wing-man, for instance, might be carrying extra weapons, conduct ISR tasks or help to defend an area.”
Scientists, by way of wargames and computer simulations, are already working on advancing drone autonomy to the point where aircraft can trick an enemy’s radar system, as well as locate and identity targets more quickly and accurately.
“We will get beyond simple guidance and control and will get into tactics and execution,” Zacharias added.
Of course, scientists disagree on whether or not machines can (or should) be programmed to instantly respond to emerging objects or circumstances—threatening or not. Nonetheless, fighter jets (and their human pilots) will still benefit from greater interconnection with drones in order to make better, faster, and safer tactical decisions during missions.
Filed Under: M2M (machine to machine)