There are not enough fully trained pilots to meet the needs of the United States Air Force. Even if there were, there wouldn’t be planes for them to fly. Now the Air Force and DARPA are turning to artificial intelligence to assist in their mission and equipping 4th-Generation aircraft pilots with the ability to command drones from their own cockpits.
“Working with BAE Systems at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Air Force test pilots are combing ground-based simulators with airborne leer jets to demonstrate how 4th generation cockpit avionics can direct drones from the air,” The National Interest writes.
“The airplane was structurally configured to allow us to take our autonomy hardware and connect it directly to the flight control system of the airplane,” Skip Stolz, Director of Strategic Development for Autonomy Control, told reporters.
The new concept is being called Distributed Battle Management and has been illustrated in a recently published Mitchell Institute paper titled: “Manned-Unmanned Aircraft Teaming: Taking Combat Airpower to the Next Level.”
The paper describes a “system-of-systems future landscape for warfare, in which networks of manned and unmanned platforms, weapons, sensors and electronic warfare systems interact.”
Drones like Predators, Global Hawks and Reapers are able to be controlled from inside the cockpit. “A fighter-jet aircraft will be able to provide a drone with tasks and objectives, manage sensor payload and direct flight-path from the air,” NI notes.
“For instance, real-time video feeds from the electro-optical/infrared sensors on board an Air Force Predator, Reaper or Global Hawk drone could go directly into an F-15, F-22 or F-35 cockpit, without needing to go to a ground control station. This could speed up targeting and tactical input from drones on reconnaissance missions in the vicinity of where a fighter pilot might want to attack. In fast-moving combat circumstances involving both air-to-air and air-to-ground threats, increased speed could make a large difference.”
While this may offer a level of protection to human pilots, it also allows pilots to do more. One pilot might now control multiple aircraft. The Air Force is hoping that this helps with the pilot shortage, too.
“A resource of 185 fighters (F-22s) and 20 bombers (B-2s) is fundamentally limited in [a] world where their capabilities are in high demand. Airmen and their aircraft, no matter how well trained or technologically advanced, cannot be in two places at once,” the paper notes.
The drones could tackle the more high-risk missions, weakening defenses so that human pilots might function more effectively.
“Advances in computer power, processing speed and AI are rapidly changing the scope of what platforms are able to perform without needing human intervention,” NI writes. “This is mostly developing in the form of what Air Force scientists describe as ‘decision aide support,’ meaning machines will be able to better interpret, organize, analyze and communicate information to a much greater extent – without have humans manage each individual task.”
The reliance on AI and drones remains controversial. Yet the new approach promises to keep humans in the loop–and simultaneously protects those humans while also placing them closer to the battlefield on which they operate.