All those Predators and Reapers flying around in Afghanistan and elsewhere may be called "unmanned drones," but they're human-in-the-loop systems, reliant (more or less) on a human pilot in a trailer somewhere. While they often have the capacity to return to a specific point if contact is lost, it doesn't always go well, and sometimes it goes very badly.
The Navy is looking to give their X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) much more autonomous capability, to the point where the aircraft is entirely controllable with mouse clicks, even by someone who has no idea how to fly a plane:
Put the phrase “remotely piloted” out of your mind, says Janis Pamiljans, a Northrop vice president who handles the company’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) portfolio. When it gets on board an aircraft carrier, it’s going to be controlled by a “mouse click,” Pamiljans says. The click of a mouse will turn on the engines. Another will get it to taxi. Keep clicking, and the plane will “take off and come home.”
Autonomous capability won't just make the UCAS easier to use, it'll also make it much more reliable, by being able to take advantage of skills like these that no human can possibly hope to match.
By 2014, the robotic aircraft will be all checked out on carrier landings and mid-air refueling. Although it's specifically designed for combat (with a stealthy profile and 2000 kg weapons payload), Northrop isn't committing itself as to whether the 100% autonomous flights will also include 100% autonomous weapon releases. That kind of thing tends to make people awfully nervous, but really, it's not significantly different than launching a cruise missile, which is itself an armed flying robot, albeit a slightly more suicidal one.
The X-47B had its first flight in February.
[ X-47B ] Via [ Danger Room ]
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.