By Henry Kenyon
The U.S. Air Force is facing a dilemma: The need and utility of unmanned aircraft continues to grow, but the technology could also limit the service’s operational responsiveness. However, while current technologies may be reaching their limits, the Defense Department is also investing in future systems that will vastly increase the capabilities of robot aircraft through increased autonomy.
Ongoing operations in Southwest Asia continue to drive the voracious demand for pilots, support personnel and bandwidth above all, said Air Force Col. J.R. Gear, speaking at the recent C4ISR Journal Conference in Washington. Gear said that the military needs additional 24-hour surveillance and close air support orbits by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The Air Force Times reported that the service already provides 44 such orbits; that number is scheduled to expand to 65 by 2013.
Increased automation could help the Air Force increase the number of platforms and missions while keeping personnel numbers down. Multiaircraft control technology allows a pilot to manage several UAVs, while autonomous fight software can provide robot aircraft with the ability to carry out their missions with minimal supervision. The two capabilities could dramatically cut the number of personnel required to maintain an airborne presence in the region. Gear said some 570 pilots are currently required to manage 50 UAV orbits. The new technology could cut this number to 150 pilots, he said.
This increased autonomy comes with a price. Gear said the bandwidth required to support these capabilities may actually limit commanders’ operational flexibility because they may have to choose between large numbers of relatively static surveillance missions or a few very flexible multi-mission operations.
But additional autonomy could cut the need to transmit huge streams of data back to analysts and personnel in the United States. Gear said that one way the Air Force has maneuvered around this issue was by moving additional personnel to the field to allow data to be filtered and analyzed more quickly instead of storing it for later study in the United States. New technologies that will soon enter the theater, such as the Gorgon Stare system which uses nine sensors per aircraft and high definition video, coupled with automated data and priority filtering systems may also help cut personnel numbers and increase operational capability, he said.
The Air Force has pondered the long-term impact of these issues. In its most recent “Technology Horizons” – an analysis of new technologies and trends affecting the service – the Air Force indicated that there is a need to develop more autonomous technologies and systems to increase operational capabilities and manpower efficiencies and cut costs.
But achieving these gains depends on new ways to trust autonomous systems through verification and validation (V&V) tools. The document concluded that because highly autonomous systems have an immense number of variables, it is not even possible to test more than a very small fraction of them at the present time. “Development of such systems is thus inherently unverifiable by today’s methods, and as a result their operations in all but comparatively trivial applications is uncertifiable,” the document concluded.
New means of certifying V&V will be required to develop autonomous systems that meet Air Force requirements. The document concluded that this is a vital need because autonomous systems represent a major operational tool and force multiplier for the Air Force.
Another conclusion is that the enormous volumes of data are overwhelming human operators and analysts.The report concluded that by 2030 technology will have reached the point that humans will be the weakest part of the system. Humans and machines will have to work more closely through new types of interfaces and by directly augmenting human performance. This could include drugs or implants to improve memory, alertness and cognition. The service is even considering the use of human brain waves or genetics to control and manage systems.
But the U.S. military’s move to develop UAV capabilities is part of a global trend. In a study of the global UAV market World Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems, Market Profile and Forecast 2010, the Teal Group noted that spending on robot aircraft will double over the next decade, from $4.9 billion to $11.5 billion annually. The report estimates total spending for the next decade to be slightly over $80 billion. The report noted that much of the market growth is being driven by U.S. military needs and a general trend towards information warfare and network centric systems.
The study found that in the next decade, the United States will account for 76 percent of global UAV research and development spending, and about 58 percent of procurement costs. Report author Steven Zaloga noted that after the United States, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region will be the two other major markets for UAV procurement and development.