Naval Air: Robotic Copilots


April 26, 2017: In early 2017 U.S. Navy aviators (pilots) of carrier based F-18Ds (and EA-18Gs) began use an automated carrier landing system that made the process a lot more effective (less likely to cause an abort and retry), less stressful and safer. Called Magic Carpet (Maritime Augmented Guidance with Integrated Controls for Carrier Approach and Recovery Precision Enabling Technologies   ) or PLM (Precision Landing Modes) this new capability was expected to be ready by 2019 but arrived early. In part this was because in 2011 an F-18D used software designed for unmanned aircraft to make a completely automated landing on a carrier. The two pilots in the F-18 did not touch the controls, and were there in case something went wrong with the software. This encouraged those who had been urging the development of more “pilot assistant” software for carrier aviators. Landing a jet fighter on a carrier, especially at night (a “night trap”) and in bad weather is generally acknowledged to be the most difficult task for any pilot.

The carrier aviators were further encouraged in 2013 when the navy’s X-47B UCAS (unmanned combat air system) made its first carrier landing without any human intervention. Many more followed that further stressed the capabilities of the automatic landing system, especially in high speed and complex (different directions) winds. The autolanding systems passed all these tests. The X-47B was also the first UAV to land and be off the carrier deck in less than 90 seconds, just like manned aircraft. In 2015 am X-47B carried out the world's first fully autonomous aerial refueling, performed with a KC-707 tanker.

While software controlled landing systems have been around for decades, landing on a moving air field (an aircraft carrier) is considerably more complex than the usual situation (landing on a stationary airfield). Dealing with carrier landings requires more powerful hardware and software aboard the aircraft. The navy expected some glitches and bugs and managed to get their carrier landing software caught up with the reliability of commercial landing software (which has been used very successfully on land based UAVs) within months rather than decades. There is not yet a fully automated landing system for manned aircraft, but the PLM is a welcome addition for aviators who land aircraft on carriers for a living and future versions of this software will probably have the equivalent of “fully automated landing” mode. For emergencies or whatever.