— A jet airliner was flown over south-west England recently with no pilot in the cockpit, to test technology that might one day be used to control swarms of unpiloted aircraft from a single fighter jet.
The two-hour flight, conducted by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and UK defence firm Qinetiq on 30 October 2006, was designed to assess whether a fighter pilot could someday control several uncrewed air vehicles (UAVs) from their own plane.
"The big burning question at the MoD is how to operate UAVs in attack missions in the future," says Kevin Williams, project manager at Qinetiq. "We wanted to see if a fast-jet pilot, flying a Tornado perhaps, could control a pack of four UAVs in deep, target attack situations while still doing his own job."
To find out, Qinetiq fitted a system called the UAV Command and Control Interface (UAVCCI), to an ageing BAC 1-11 a 1960s era 100-seat twin-engine jetliner, made by the British Aircraft Corporation.
Under civil aviation law, the pilot controlling the jetliner still had to be on board the aircraft. But he sat at the back of the plane using only the UAVCCI to control the large jet, along with four computer-simulated UAVs on a virtual attack mission.
The UAVCCI uses software agents to control each aircraft under its command, minimising the pilot's workload. This makes each of the UAVs semi-autonomous: they fly straight and level on their own and can be given simple orders using a point-and-click interface on what Williams calls "a simple, flat, moving map".
"The pilot only had to give top level instructions to the UAVs on where to go and what weapons to use, not fly them minute-by-minute," says Ben White, a Qinetiq spokesman.
In addition to controlling the jetliner in flight, the "pilot" ordered the simulated UAVs to carry out ground attacks on virtual moving targets. "The remote pilot has pushbutton commands for each UAV, telling it to loiter, undertake a search pattern, or attack a target," Williams explains.
An emergency crew sat in the cockpit of the airliner in case a serious system failure occurred, and also performed the take-off and landing.
"This technology is getting us closer and closer to actually controlling a fleet of UAVs from a military aircraft," says Bruno Esposito, chair of Euro UAV, a trade body comprising 20 European companies, based in Paris, France. "It makes the things you can afford to lose - the UAVs - more expendable, because you cannot afford to lose a pilot or an expensive platform like a fighter."
Next March, the UAVCCI will face a much harder test. From the cockpit of a Tornado fighter, the pilot will have to fly the Tornado, the unpiloted BAC1-11 and several simulated UAVs.
Controlling multiple uncrewed vehicles and ground robots is a major aim of NATO defence researchers and the US Pentagon wants one-third of its military "assets" to be robotic or remotely controllable by 2015.