UAV autonomy limits flexibility, officer says

Global Hawk

Scott Fontaine Air Force Times

More automation in unmanned aircraft is essential to counter the Air Force’s looming resource crunch but will likely limit operational flexibility, the director of the service’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Task Force said.

The demand for pilots, technicians, support personnel and data bandwidth will only increase as the Pentagon’s craving for more 24-hour obits continues, Col. J.R. Gear told an audience at the C4ISR Journal Conference in Washington, D.C. The service currently provides 44 round-the-clock-hour orbits, and that number is scheduled to grow to 65 by 2013.

The Air Force could cut the number of pilots needed to maintain 50 unmanned aircraft orbits by introducing multiaircraft control — allowing one pilot to control several unmanned aerial vehicles — and by installing software that would allow the planes to fly themselves, Gear said. Right now, it takes 570 pilots to maintain 50 unmanned aircraft orbits. The number of pilots could drop to 150 with both capabilities, Gear said.

Such technology is already in development for the MQ-9 Reaper and the RQ-4 Global Hawk. But with greater aircraft autonomy, he warned, comes a loss of the flexibility that commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan now enjoy.

“We’ll be going to the combatant commanders and saying, ‘You can have 20 [combat air patrols] of ISR, but that’s all it’s really going to be,’” he said. “ ‘And it’s going to be static ISR; you might not be able to follow a vehicle. Or you can have six CAPs of fully dynamic — anything from ISR to close-air support capability. What do you want? Do you want the 20 or the six?’”

Greater autonomy could also help ease the tremendous need for bandwidth to send data from the warzone to analysts and crews in the U.S. The first Reaper equipped with the Gorgon Stare system, which uses nine sensors on each aircraft, should deploy later this year to southern Afghanistan. And the full-motion video on the MQ-1 and MQ-9 will soon switch to high-definition.

“We’re moving from megabytes to terabytes to petabytes of data being collected,” he said. “We’ve solved that by moving people overseas because we don’t have the bandwidth to move all that information back and store it. … We’re going to have to be able to filter this information, automate the ability to locate those items of interest so that they’re on demand instead of moving all that information back.”

A call for greater autonomy with unmanned aircraft isn’t new. The Air Force in July released “Technology Horizons,” its forward-looking science and technology projections. In the report, it called for the Air Force to create a variety of systems that can operate more autonomously. The report’s author and the Air Force’s chief scientist, Werner Dahm, told reporters shortly after its release that humans look like they’ll soon be the weak link in many systems.

In a separate speech, the Air Force’s assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance said he doesn’t believe the military’s need for ISR capabilities will fade — even after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end. Extremist networks shift locations when one area gets too hostile, he added.

“We’re going to take this fantastic, networked ISR capability that we’ve jointly prepared, and if and when we get out of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ll spin the wheel as to which country we’ll go to next,” Maj. Gen. James Poss told the conference.

Contested or hostile airspace could present a future problem, Poss said. But if the skies above future combat zones are clear of threats — like they are above today’s hotspots — the military should be able to use a fleet of aircraft that has revolutionized modern warfare.

“And I’ll put our joint network up against any terrorist network out there for effectiveness,” Poss said.