Navy looks into how to control next-generation autonomous unmanned aircraft

PATUXENT RIVER NAS, Md., 24 June 2005. U.S. Navy officials are looking to Defense Technologies Inc. (DTI) in Gastonia, N.C., to help them design a new unmanned vehicle control station for future generations of autonomous craft.

By John Keller

PATUXENT RIVER NAS, Md., 24 June 2005. U.S. Navy officials are looking to Defense Technologies Inc. (DTI) in Gastonia, N.C., to help them design a new unmanned vehicle control station for future generations of autonomous craft.

DTI engineers are working under terms of an $8.8 million contract awarded June 22 from the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., for research into a prototype intelligent autonomous unmanned control station.

The intent is to reduce military manning levels by introducing more machine autonomy into future unmanned vehicles.

"The problem with current unmanned systems is they are very manpower-intensive," explains Thomas Moulds, technical lead the DTI office at Lexington Park, Md. "Normally have two or three operators flying one vehicle, and more on the ground to support the aircraft. Unmanned systems can actually increase manpower, even if the operators are in a safe place."

Most of today's unmanned vehicles must have human operators to monitor and control their every move. Rather than simply giving the unmanned vehicles tasks to carry out, existing vehicles often need a human to teleoperate them.

"We are introducing intelligent autonomy to unmanned vehicles that allows the operator instead of literally flying the vehicle to be in more of a monitoring mode," Moulds explains. "The operator would assign tasks instead of taking specific actions."

Most of the work under the current contract will be at the DTI facility in Ranlo, N.C., and a small portion will be at Patuxent River NAS. Work is to be finished in 2008. The contract number is N00421-05-D-0055.

Intelligent autonomy experts on the DTI staff have experience integrating air-, land-, and sea-based unmanned vehicles with distributed computing, natural language engines, and human factors engineering, company officials say.

They use open standard interfaces, NATO-compliant architectures, and plug-and-play modules to develop and test real-time mission-control stations by using modeling and simulation, autonomous programming technology integration, and prototyping.

Navy officials procured this contract competitively under a broad agency announcement, to which only DTI responded. The emphasis -- at least for this year -- is on unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), Moulds says.

Another goal of DTI's intelligent autonomous unmanned control station prototype is finding a way to integrate autonomous UAVs so they can work together, avoid other aircraft without human intervention, and fly in U.S. national airspace under supervision of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic controllers.

Today's UAVs, Moulds points out, often do not work well together or with manned aircraft in close proximity. "The UAV is usually given one area of operations, and manned systems another," he says. "The UAVs don't have a good way to avoid manned systems."

He cited some recent incidental collisions between small UAVs and manned helicopters in combat areas as an example. Although Moulds says no serious damage or injuries have occurred from these collisions, military officials acknowledge that finding a better way to mix manned and unmanned aircraft closely is a big issue. "The small UAVs are pretty much blind up there," Moulds says.

DTI experts have three program goals this year: to integrate UAVs into U.S. national and military airspace; determining the proper look and feel of future autonomous UAV control stations; and determining the proper electronic symbology for future UAV control stations.

"We need to determine what the UAV needs onboard so the FAA is comfortable with it operating in national airspace," Moulds says. "We want to find out what technology it would take so the air traffic controller can communicate with the UAV like he would with any other air vehicle."

DTI also is investigating passive and active collision-avoidance systems, such as autonomous "see-and-avoid" systems, as well as technology similar to the Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS) that is aboard commercial airliners.

For the future control station, Moulds says today's systems essentially look like aircraft cockpits that enable ground controllers to fly UAVs remotely. "We need to find out what kinds of interfaces we need to task that UAV, and how many unmanned systems can one operator monitor."

For more information contact DTI online at www.dtiweb.net.

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