By Henry Kenyon
The U.S. Army is working on new technologies designed to keep its unmanned eyes in the sky despite battle damage. Unmanned aerial systems are a vital part of coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past nine years, the robot aircraft have grown in sophistication and potency and now range from simple hand-launched tactical platforms that help infantry scan over the next hill to strategic surveillance aircraft such as the Global Hawk.
However, unmanned aircraft have certain challenges. Because they have no pilot to immediately sense and react to a changing situation, unmanned aircraft can be brought down by light damage or structural failure. The Army's Program Executive Office Aviation is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop algorithms and flight systems designed to keep unmanned aircraft in the sky after they are damaged.
Recent tests have demonstrated the ability of an Army Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle to stay in the air after losing 20 inches of wing, said Tim Owings, the Army's deputy program manager for unmanned aircraft systems, at the Association of the U.S. Army's Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, D.C., Oct. 26.
Owings said the program is developing hardware and software that will allow an aircraft to stabilize itself after being damaged, and it has designed adaptive, self-healing software that can compensate for the loss of major sections of wings and stabilizers.
Once the last tests are complete and the results have been analyzed, Owings said he is confident that the capability will be introduced into the Shadow fleet. The Shadow is the Army's primary medium-sized unmanned aerial platform.
Unlike the Air Force, which relies on pilots to remotely land its unmanned aircraft, he said the Army uses an automated landing system and has had few landing-related accidents. Instead, the primary source of trouble is propulsion plant failures. After the flight control program is complete, Owings said he expects a major effort to improve power plant reliability.