Flight plan

A system which allows a single pilot to fly his or her own aircraft while simultaneously directing up to four further unmanned planes has been successfully tested in a military jet for the first time, it is claimed.

The system, developed by Qinetiq and funded by the MOD, was flown on a series of successful flight trials at the MOD’s base at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire. The tests used a Tornado as the command-and-control aircraft with a BAC 1-11 trials aircraft acting as the so-called ‘surrogate’ UAV.

The Tornado was flown by an RAF test pilot who then assumed control of the BAC 1-11 midway through the flight, as well as the three simulated UAVs on board the plane. Working in combination, the Tornado and four UAVs carried out a simulated ground attack on a moving target.

‘We were really interested in seeing how controlling the UAVs would affect the Tornado pilot’s own workload,’ said the team’s technical leader David Walker. For him the key to the project is that the Tornado pilot is able to control the UAVs without being too distracted from his own flying duties.

‘It really is about the pilot just giving top-level commands,’ he said. ‘He issues an instruction such as: “Go and check out that area and report back if there is anything of interest”. Then, if the UAV picks up a possible target he can order it to take an image of the object and send it back to him to have a look at.’

The sophisticated computer aboard the UAVs allows them to act autonomously including the ability to organise themselves, communicate, target their weapons and sense their environment — including possible enemies.

Final decision

But the pilot always has the final decision to fire any of the simulated weapons. While the system has been designed to provide the UAVs with a significant degree of independent intelligence to greatly reduce the workload of the pilot, a key feature of the UAV project is that the most important decisions are retained by a human operator.

For logistical and cost reasons the three simulated UAVs took the form of pieces of hardware containing the autonomy software in the back of the one ‘real’ UAV. However, for the pilot in his modified Tornado all four UAVs showed up on his screens as individual planes and he did not know which one was real. All four aircraft were flown no more than a few tens of kilometres apart because in real operations, too great a distance might lead to a loss of the data link between them, leaving the UAV isolated.

The UAV autonomy technology developed for these trials is also finding its way into two further MOD projects. Qinetiq is taking a lead role in the Taranis project, a £124m joint industry and MOD initiative to develop an autonomous unmanned combat aircraft (The Engineer 29 January).

The company’s technology is also involved in the £32m ASTRAEA project, an initiative to explore the technical and regulatory challenges of using UAVs for civil and commercial applications.

According to Qinetiq, the ability to direct multiple UAVs could have a number of civil applications beyond the military, including coastguard search-and-rescue, disaster relief operations or in environmental monitoring.

‘There is much interest in using more unmanned aircraft in civil applications,’ said Walker. ‘The US is looking at using a Predator UAV to cover border crossings, while they could also be used in search-and-rescue because the lack of a pilot means the aircraft can take more fuel.’

‘In terms of uses for this technology, I suspect we are only at the tip of the iceberg,’ he added.