— During the demonstration flight, the pilot of a modified Tornado fighter plane assumed remote control of a BAC 1-11 airliner (Image: Craig Hoyle / Flight International)
Fighter pilots will one day be able to control entire squadrons of uncrewed combat aircraft as well as their own plane, following successful flight demonstrations of a multi-aircraft remote control system in UK airspace.
In addition to cutting the number of pilots risked in military operations, the remote control system could one day also be used to auto-land hijacked planes. Or they might allow lone pilots to orchestrate complex search and rescue operations.
UK defence firm Qinetiq demonstrated the system on 30 March. The pilot of a modified Tornado fighter plane assumed remote control of a BAC 1-11 airliner carrying members of the press, including New Scientist, and flying at an altitude of 4500 metres (15000 feet). See a video of the flight (2.5MB .mov). The Tornado pilot was also in control of three simulated Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs).
The idea was to demonstrate that the Tornado could coordinate a squadron of UCAVs of which the BAC 1-11 formed one using a remote-control system developed by Qinetiq, called Autonomy.
Currently, UCAVs and their unarmed cousins, UAVs, are controlled remotely by pilots on the ground, who may be thousands of miles away. For instance, UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan are flown by pilots based in Florida and California, US. Autonomy could allow an airborne fighter pilot closer to the action take control, with each UCAV sending images and other data back to the control jet.
Autonomy has more control than a normal autopilot system and is more sophisticated, coordinating the movement of several different airplanes simultaneously.
It does this by assigning a software agent to look after each UCAV or UAV and automatically drawing up flight patterns around the likely targets. The uncrewed craft follow these patterns until the fighter pilot, who examines images of possible targets, decides they should investigate, attack, or go home to refuel.
During the demonstration flight, as the Tornado assumed control of the BAC 1-11 via a UHF radio link, the airliner's pilot was unperturbed. "If I don't like what Autonomy is doing I just switch off the autopilot and take control again," he said.
Squadron leader Andy Blythe, who piloted the Tornado, says Autonomy's software agents seriously reduce the attention he has to pay to the task of directing the UCAVs. "Autonomy is no bigger distraction than any other sensor I have in the aircraft," he says. "It's just another sensor, like a forward looking infrared or radar."
Blythe also does not see the system as a potential safety threat. "I don't think they will ever take the human out of the loop," he says. "It wouldn't be politically correct for one thing. Our futures are safe."