Warplanes: Britain Creates Robotic Wingmen


December3, 2006: Britain has developed software that enables UAVs to operate independently, but cooperatively, under the command of a manned aircraft, on combat missions. The UAVs would, most of the time, take care of themselves, following the plan of the operation they were programmed with. But the pilot of manned aircraft could order any of the UAVs to deviate from the plan. The key to all this is flight control software, and artificial intelligence, that is capable enough to make it all work. The UAVs also constantly communicate with each other, and function "cooperatively" (to avoid collisions, or two UAVs attacking the same target, and so on).

Since computers are running all this, the reactions are quicker than with human pilots. The UAVs can perform a number of dangerous missions, like attacking air defenses, searching for targets on the ground, or defending the entire "package" (the manned aircraft and all the UAVs) from enemy aircraft. The UAVs can be used more aggressively, because you are not risking the lives of pilots. If the manned aircraft is shot down, the UAVs have their programmed orders to complete the mission, or immediately break off and return to base. It's also possible to use this software so that one human operator on the ground can control a swarm (half a dozen or so) UAVs for, say, a recon mission, to scour an area for enemy targets. This saves a lot of skilled manpower, as all you need is someone to review the video. And increasingly powerful software is capable of doing that as well, leaving only for the human analyst to confirm that something important has been found.

This kind of software has been around, in a conceptual form, for decades. But it took powerful enough hardware (in terms of computing power, and high quality digital vidcams), and decades of tweaking the software, to reach the point where the stuff actually works.