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The Military Transportation Technology

New Aircraft Is Pilot Optional 76

Posted by samzenpus
from the designated-pilot-program dept.
Zothecula writes "Although the use of unmanned aerial vehicles such as Global Hawk and Raven for military information gathering has increased sharply in the last decade due to the maturation and miniaturization of enabling technologies, conventional piloted aircraft can still be a better option depending on the mission at hand. Northrop Grumman has unveiled a new intelligence gathering aircraft called the Firebird that falls into the category of an Optionally Piloted Vehicle with its ability to be flown robotically or with a human pilot on board."
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New Aircraft Is Pilot Optional

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  • If the computer systems are built on Windows, anyone will be able to hack in and fly it!
    • by JWSmythe (446288)

          Just like a computer though, you have to have a way to reach it. I kind of doubt they'll just give it an IP. :) You'll probably have an awful hard time gaining physical access too. I don't know much about hacking encrypted government satellites, but I'd have to guess it's a little more than trivial.

      • Didn't they catch the Air Force uplinking Predator/Global Hawk video in the clear a few years back?
        • by JWSmythe (446288)

          I was about to say you were wrong, but you are correct [latimes.com].

          There were other incidents several years ago, where people on the east coast of the US with antennas pointed down to the horizon, or people in Europe, could pick up the occasional unencrypted transmissions.

          The gov't runs several different satellite systems. There are encrypted and unencrypted transmissions. As far as I know, none of them manipulate brain waves though (had to include that for the tinfoil hat

    • those robot pilots didn't do as well as Ballu

    • Shouldn't Firebird be as multiplatform as Firefox and Thunderbird?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I effin' love twin-tail planes. Watched too much tailspin as a kid.

  • by jcr (53032) <jcr.mac@com> on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @09:41PM (#36102288) Journal

    Seems to me that there must be a market in Canada and Alaska for aerial supply where you can fly in weather that's too dangerous to risk a pilot.

    -jcr

    • by wagnerrp (1305589)
      Unmanned drones can be made cheaply because they're small, and do not need the volume and life support systems needed to house a pilot. Something intended for cargo is going to be large and expensive. Satellite links don't have the latency for reliable remote operations, and autonomous flight control systems are not yet particularly good at adverse conditions. You're not going to risk the supplies and aircraft unless they are vital to survival of the outpost/mission, and then you're going to want a veter
      • by jcr (53032)

        >Something intended for cargo is going to be large and expensive.

        That depends on the cargo. It may be sacks of flour (really heavy), or it may be medicine (not heavy at all). Also, if you're not paying for a pilot, you're saving the weight and the expense of carrying a man wherever that payload needs to go. Not to mention, since computers don't need to sleep, you can fly the UAV 24/7 if you want, and only stop it for refueling, loading and unloading the cargo.

        -jcr

        • by bhiestand (157373)

          >Something intended for cargo is going to be large and expensive.

          That depends on the cargo. It may be sacks of flour (really heavy), or it may be medicine (not heavy at all). Also, if you're not paying for a pilot, you're saving the weight and the expense of carrying a man wherever that payload needs to go. Not to mention, since computers don't need to sleep, you can fly the UAV 24/7 if you want, and only stop it for refueling, loading and unloading the cargo.

          -jcr

          On the medicine side, it actually makes sense, but more as a SAR bird. I can imagine the Coast Guard deploying a large fleet of UAVs, able to stay up 24x7, scan for wreckage/ships/survivors, mark locations, and potentially even airdrop some basic relief supplies (life raft, etc.).

          They already use C-130s for this, but 130s require a large crew, are fuel limited, and there just aren't that many of them... Granted UAVs still require maintenance, but I really do expect this to happen in the future.

      • Unmanned drones can be made cheaply because they're small, and do not need the volume and life support systems needed to house a pilot.

        That's why this "pilot-optional" concept seems so silly to me. The craft needs to carry around all the equipment weight and body size needed to have a pilot, yet may often fly without a pilot? Sounds like a massive waste.

        • by wagnerrp (1305589)
          In this case, 'pilot-optional' makes sense. One of the primary uses for it and the Proteus craft before it is a development platform. You can develop systems and hardware for autonomous and remotely operated vehicles, but still have someone in the cockpit ready to take control if needed.
        • by BranMan (29917)
          Maybe not such a waste in some situations - if you make some of the equipment needed for a pilot easily removable - like the seat for instance - you can use the weight savings of not having that equipment, or the pilot, aboard. Carry extra fuel to extend the range, or increase the cargo capacity. Can make it a lot more flexible
        • Unmanned drones can be made cheaply because they're small, and do not need the volume and life support systems needed to house a pilot.

          That's why this "pilot-optional" concept seems so silly to me. The craft needs to carry around all the equipment weight and body size needed to have a pilot, yet may often fly without a pilot? Sounds like a massive waste.

          I'd be very surprised if the pilot support system was not highly compartmentalized specifically so it could be removed to save weight. Alternatively I'd be surprised if the space allotted to it could not be reused for other purposes when it isn't need.

      • by afidel (530433)
        Dude, a cargo plane in Alaska is a Piper Cub or American Champion Scout, if you can make the autopilot cheap enough it would probably make sense considering bush pilot is one of the most dangerous jobs in the US.
        • The problem with flying in Alaska is the wind, specifically the way winds change do to the mountains, humans have a hard time accounting for these rapid changes and as a result crash, a typical UAV would not be able to handle those problems the response time is way too long, that is why take off and landing of predator planes is done locally. The B2 crash is another lesson the plane stalled out and crashed because a sensor was wrong and the software overrode the pilot and decided to pull up causing a stall
      • by tlhIngan (30335)

        Well, the problem is in Alaska and Northern Canada, communities are literally cut off for months at a time because the weather gets so bad it's impossible to get supplies in and out. And these communities may require assistance - e.g., their generator is broken and they're relying on a backup.

        Even SAR can be aided since they can fly around without risking SAR flight crew's lives.

    • That's a really good idea... I don't think people would be willing to fly on an airplane without a pilot, but cargo is entirely different (if not rationally so, at least in the human mind). I could see having cargo aircraft that are remotely piloted at takeoff and landing, but computer-piloted for most of their trip; not just for remote airstrips but for all kinds of situations. Commercial cargo and also military- have a robotic cargo plane or helicopter to airlift your equipment into combat zones, for inst
      • ... Why not make all aircraft 'pilot optional' ...

        My understanding is that we are pretty much there today. I believe for certain modern commercial aircraft the autopilot can land the aircraft. I think occasional auto-landings are even required. So a modern commercial jetliner can navigate from waypoint to waypoint, approach and land on autopilot. Can they take off too? I believe some carrier based military aircraft, F18 for example, launch on autopilot.

      • by hitmark (640295)

        Hmm, why do pilot unconsciousness remind me of GITS:SAC?

        • by jgtg32a (1173373)
          IIRC there was an episode where this was a plot point. A pilot of a combat helicopter was put into a coma but not killed, because the backup AI would return to base, or something like that, it's been years.
      • by man_of_mr_e (217855) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @10:47PM (#36102698)

        Interesting, about 15 years ago I wrote a short story in which commercial airline pilots were "figureheads". Most had lost what pilot training they had from years of atrophy. The pilot was only there to reassure the passengers that someone could fly the thing if the computers failed, but because the systems were designed for computer control and reflexes, it was pretty much impossible for a human to pilot them anyways.

        The aircraft companies were able to take lots of shortcuts in the design of the planes because they could count on computer control to compensate before stress became too great for the airframe to handle, using minute adjustments billions of times a second to keep the planes infrastructure as free of stress as possible.

        Ahh.. mid-90's.. when Popular Mechanics was a great source of fiction inspiration.

      • by hedwards (940851)

        Perhaps, but most crashes are the result of pilot error, and unless something has changed, Airbus planes won't even let the pilot assume full manual control. Boeing planes will, but it's only for rare circumstances when there's a serious malfunction. And just look at the technology that's gone into drones, it shouldn't too hard, comparatively speaking, to scale those up to the size of a small plane, or scale the larger planes down to cover that gap.

      • by jcr (53032)

        I don't think people would be willing to fly on an airplane without a pilot

        Maybe not yet, but after there's a record of a couple of years and thousands of flight hours where you can show that the autopilots have a lower rate of failure than human pilots, I would expect that to change.

        -jcr

        • by dargaud (518470)

          I don't think people would be willing to fly on an airplane without a pilot

          Maybe not yet, but after there's a record of a couple of years and thousands of flight hours where you can show that the autopilots have a lower rate of failure than human pilots, I would expect that to change.

          I had the exact same discussion yesterday about the automated Google cars. He said that if they became commercial, after the 1st crash lawyers would sue them into oblivion, which isn't false. But if after a couple billion miles there are 100 times more driver incidents than non-driver, then expect manual driving to be banned for good.

    • by hitmark (640295)

      Well there is already work on a optionally manned helicopter for a similar reason.

      https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Kaman_K-MAX [wikimedia.org]

  • At what point does it go from the current version to the 'Squids' in the Matrix?
  • by Required Snark (1702878) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @10:00PM (#36102410)
    The prototype shown in the pictures is a civilian aircraft with a tail number so it can be tracked. If you go to http://flightaware.com/live/ [flightaware.com] and type in the tail number N355SX you can find out where it is. I just looked and it seems to be on route as I am writing this. This must be the manned version, because UAV aircraft would not have a tail number as a civilian aircraft.

    I wonder if the tracking site can stand up to Slashdot? We'll see...

    • by wagnerrp (1305589)
      Actually, the flight was on May 2. Cool site though.
    • Actually, if you look at the photos. There is a plane in flight with N355SX and it has windows, then another picture of another plane also labeled N355SX does not have windows.

      Looks like more than one plane carries the tail number.

    • Autopilot could be called a precursor to this, but I wouldn't equate it. Autopilot is more of a fail safe system that doesn't have anywhere near the capabilities needed to carry out an entire flight.
  • Not that it's a good idea, but the autopilot already does just about all of the flying. They did this on Mythbusters...the myth of the tower talking a non-pilot down. Wouldn't happen these days because the autopilot is perfectly capable of landing the plane.

    I am talking about large commercial cargo or passenger planes...not bug smashers, of course.
    • While autopilot may be capable of landing a plane, commercial pilots still prefer to drive 'er themselves. My friend is a 737 pilot for SouthWest Airlines, and he says that he always lands manually, even in bad weather where you would think auto-pilot might have an advantage.
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      The fanciest planes can land at the fanciest airports without assistance. There's still plenty of opportunity for the civilian hero.

  • ...for one way transport, don't you think? You transport troops or what have you with a human pilot, then send the plane back like a carrier pigeon.

    Attach a system like this to a canoe and you'll never have to worry about crossing rivers with cannibals again. (I couldn't help it.)
  • by hitmark (640295) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @10:36PM (#36102624) Journal

    1. it looks like the love child between a predator drone and the OV-10 bronco: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/North_American_Rockwell_OV-10_Bronco [wikimedia.org]

    2. any chance there will be a civilian version?

  • The 'flight crew takes a nap' option.

  • Next step is to make a pilot-optional UAV fighter with an armed jet-packed pilot. Something like the guy that just jettisoned across the Grand Canyon, but take that tech further, and make it more compact. Then of course you could outfit the pilot with the ability to fly the UAV while he's flying himself to safefy, or dropping himself quickly behind enemy lines. The pilot's arms would house another micro-UAV attack drone on each, which he could deploy while in the air, jettisoning himself about; to distra
  • by lsdi (1585395) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @11:11PM (#36102836)
    I've been piloting for more than 10 years and I'm a UAV enthusiast but, I'm sorry: Globalhawk is piloted by humans, it has the same autopilot that any good airplane has, including a (similar) ILS-CAT-III and inertial system. (in fact, they use EXACTLY the same honeywell/rockwell autopilot than most modern planes) Yes, it can land and take-off on it's own (in specific circumstances), just like ANY Airbus and Boeing NG does. Autopilots do not fly airplanes, they just move control surfaces based on angles and speeds, it's just a script/formula. It does not learn how to react to unexpected situations, and it does not accumulates experience: required to "override" information read by instruments. Making a car that follows marks on ground is not driving. It took decades to make cars actually drive them by themselves, yet, they cheat by using radars.
    • by e70838 (976799)
      The autopilot could be fixed to do most of the tasks of a pilot except one: correctly react to a technical failure.
      Human pilots (should) understand enough of their aircraft to make sound decisions when something go wrong.
      In fact technical problems are not seldom at all, most of the time passengers do not know there was a problem.
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Making a car that follows marks on ground is not driving. It took decades to make cars actually drive them by themselves, yet, they cheat by using radars.

      Giving the car additional senses that we don't have isn't cheating, it's much of the point of building robots in the first place.

      With that said, when someone figures out how to give me sunglasses with active RADAR integrated that doesn't simultaneously give me brain cancer and which can run for more than five seconds on a charge then I'll be highly interested. Wake me up when I can pull a flying car out of a briefcase.

  • Now, please wake me up when they finally get to the point of having a pilot for which the vehicle is optional.
  • the use of unmanned aerial vehicles

    Didn't Amelia Earhart have an aircraft decades ago that could fly both manned or unmanned?

  • by Concerned Onlooker (473481) on Wednesday May 11, 2011 @11:57PM (#36103064) Homepage Journal

    When I was learning to fly my instructors used to say that the commercial airliner crew of the future would consist of a pilot and a dog. The pilot's job is to feed the dog. The dog's job is to keep the pilot from touching anything.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    What's wrong with a underslung pod on a Predator, a midget, a Fubata, and a scuba tank?

  • Hello, welcome to the new Boeing 666 with fully automatic pilot and stewardesses. Now that we've taken off, please note that we have secured the passenger seat locks so that you cannot move. The flight attendants will now bring out the beverage cart and mobile surgical units. Do not be alarmed. Do not be alarmed. Nothing can go wrong. Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do. I'm half crazy all for the love of you.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    "...All stealth bombers are upgraded with Cyberdyne computers, becoming fully unmanned. Afterwards, they fly with a perfect operational record."

    You know what happens next...

  • Am I really the first one in this thread to suggest that maybe "Firebird" is an unfortunate choice of name for a 'pilot optional' aircraft? Really?

Vitamin C deficiency is apauling.

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