Warplanes: The Cylon Menace

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June 14,2008: The U.S. Department of Defense recently ran a successful test of flight control software that can survive combat damage, figure out how to recover, and then land the aircraft. The test was conducted using a 60 percent scale UAV model of a F-18 fighter. The UAV had a right wing that could detach part of itself in flight. The aircraft can also instigate several other "failures" typical of massive combat damage (as would accompany most of one wing.) The new software, called ASAC (Automatic Supervisory Adaptive Control) uses what can best be described as AI (Artificial Intelligence) to quickly assess the situation, come up with the best possible solution, and then carry it out. In this case, that means landing what's left of the aircraft safely.

All this is really nothing new, just evolutionary. For years, commercial aircraft have had flight control systems that can land and fly to their destination automatically. Automated take offs are possible, but not necessary, as most of that process consists of maneuvering the aircraft on the ground, to get it into position where it can execute the relatively simple (at least compared to a landing) procedure.

Landing is much more complicated, especially at night or in bad weather. That's why automated landing systems were developed first. There was a real need for this sort of stuff. Meanwhile, the Global Hawk, the largest UAV in service, already has, and uses, automated landing, flight and takeoff. All an operator does is maneuver the UAV around on the ground, before takeoff and after landing.

Another example is how Israel has designed a maritime patrol UAV by simply installing UAV type flight control software in a Gulfstream 550 business jet (equipped with radar and other recon type sensors). The Gulfstream 550 UAV uses the flight control software, plus the addition of cameras in the cockpit, so that the ground operator could see what pilots normally see.

It's developments like this that make combat pilots wonder what their long term career prospects are. But for the moment, the main reason for developing this more capable flight control software, is to decrease the number of UAVs lost to damage or equipment failure.

 


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