Wiltshire, UK: An autonomous system, which provides pilots with the ability to fly their own aircraft, even as they direct up to four other unmanned aircraft has been successfully demonstrated in active use for the first time. The system, developed by QinetiQ and funded by the UK ministry of defense (MoD), provides unmanned aircraft an advanced level of independence and intelligence, or autonomy.
According to QinteiQ officials, a series of successful flight trials were flown using a Tornado as the command and control aircraft and a BAC 1-11 trials aircraft acting as a "surrogate" unmanned air vehicle (UAV). The Tornado pilot also had responsibility for commanding a further three simulated UAVs.
Throughout the sorties a mixed RAF and QinetiQ flight crew, located on the BAC 1-11 monitored safety and control during takeoff and landing. QinetiQ's Tornado Integrated Avionics Research Aircraft (TIARA), flown by an RAF test pilot, then assumed control of the 1-11 surrogate UAV and three simulated UAVs for the middle section of each flight. The demonstration flights were conducted last week, taking off from MoD Boscombe Down in Wiltshire.
Working in combination, the Tornado and four UAVs carried out a simulated ground attack on a moving target. According to QinetiQ, the sophisticated computer on the UAVs allowed them to act autonomously, that is self-organize, communicate, sense their environment, including possible enemies, and target their weapons. However, the final decision to fire any weapons was retained by the Tornado pilot.
QinetiQ says that the system has been designed to provide the UAVs with a significant degree of independent intelligence. Though this ability greatly reduces the workload of the pilot, it is however ensured that a human operator retains control over the most important decisions.
"The UK is playing a leading role in the development of UAV technology and this autonomy program is truly world-leading," said Tony Wall, managing director of QinetiQ's air division. "Working closely with our MOD customers and RAF partners, we are delighted with the successes achieved at Boscombe Down last week. There remains a great deal of work to be done before a system like this could be considered for operations but the trials represent an important step in proving that complex autonomy technologies are ready to move from a simulated world to realistic flight conditions."
Before flights began, the entire UAV system was thoroughly tested in a QinetiQ simulation environment at Bedford. This enabled the flight crew and trials team to rehearse the first real sortie 'flying' from a 'virtual' Boscombe Down using all the software and hardware that was installed in the Tornado and the UAVs. This approach has realized significant cost savings through the reduction in flying hours and associated support costs.
The UAV autonomy technology developed for these trials is feeding into two further government-backed programs. QinetiQ is playing a leading role in the Taranis project; a $245 million joint industry and MoD initiative to develop an autonomous unmanned combat aircraft.
QinetiQ's technology is also supporting the $63 million ASTRAEA project, a joint industry and DTI initiative to explore the technical and regulatory challenges of using UAVs for civil and commercial applications.
QinetiQ also says that the ability to direct multiple autonomous unmanned aircraft could deliver benefit in a range of civil scenarios, including coastguard search and rescue, disaster relief operations or during environmental monitoring.