Fighter pilots could command drone 'swarms'
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Fighter pilots could command drone 'swarms'
NewScientist.com/ July 26, 2004

Jet fighter pilots could command a whole swarm of planes from the air, using a system developed by a British aerospace company.

QinetiQ - formerly the UK government's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency - has developed technology that would allow a pilot to control up to five aircraft during a mission, without needing to constantly keep a check on them.

So far, the system has been demonstrated as part of a new simulator developed by QinetiQ, modelled on the Eurofighter. The system allows a pilot to program a group of up to five unmanned planes to perform a simple task, like searching an area for enemy vehicles.

The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) under the pilot's control use software "agents" to carry out their mission. These agents are given a goal - to find enemy targets, for example - and can independently deal with the various variables involved.


Stealthy bombers

"The UAVs have to be intelligent enough to do the right things without having to refer to a human operator," says Jon Platts, technical manager for autonomous air vehicles at QinetiQ.

In the case of a search and destroy mission the UAVs would locate a potential target and send an image of it back to the pilot, who could give the command to attack it or continue the search. But a pilot could also override the UAVs autonomous behaviour and even control individual planes by hand if necessary.

If the link between the UAVs and the fighter should fail, they must also be able to continue their mission independently or return to base.

"From micro spies to stealthy bombers, UAVs are making the vision of unmanned aircraft a reality," says Peter Birkett, managing director of the spin off company that developed the simulator, called cueSim.

Birkett says the simulator "brings to life a future combat environment where a fast jet is controlling a whole package of UAVs, thereby delivering greater firepower and reconnaissance capability".

The simulator connects two cockpits over a network, allowing two pilots to fly in tandem. The system in fact uses some off-the-shelf software technology more commonly found in computer games.

Platt is confident the technology can be easily transferred from simulator to real life. He says the technology could be implemented in real fighter planes within the next 10 years, but the main obstacle would be to rigorously demonstrate its safety to regulators.

Will Knight

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