May 31, 2007 One of the advantages of having a human at the controls of an aircraft when things go wrong is that we have the ability to adjust and intelligently work around a problem – the tales of valiant airmen bringing home planes that have no right to still be flying are myriad. Now it seems that the humble, computer-controlled UAV is set to learn such skills too. Flight control and navigation systems provider Athena Technologies recently demonstrated the damage tolerant flight control and autonomous landing capabilities on a subscale F/A-18 UAV. See the videos here and here.

The objective of the test was to prove that adaptive flight controls could regain baseline aircraft performance after the aircraft had sustained simulated battle damage and then safely land the aircraft autonomously with only the onboard INS/GPS functionality of Athena’s GuideStar 111m for navigation.


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The demonstration involved a subscale F/A-18 UAV, powered by a turbojet engine, that sustained wing battle damage simulated with the in-flight ejection of an aileron. Athena’s damage tolerant controls detected the damage in flight and adapted to the new air vehicle configuration for the effects of the lost aileron, recovering the baseline vehicle performance. The vehicle then successfully landed in the damaged state with Athena’s INS/GPS-only autonomous landing system within a few feet of the target touch down point on the airfield runway.

Damage tolerance is an enabling capability for increasing the mission reliability of UAVs and Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) operating in hazardous and high-threat environments. The technology provides for real-time autonomous accommodation of damage, followed by an adaptation process that alters the flight control system to compensate for the effects of the damage. During the flight test, Athena demonstrated a capability that could be applicable to all military aircraft operating in combat environments. The technology is also relevant to any vehicle, manned or unmanned, including civilian aircraft, that might sustain physical damage or failures that impact controlled flight.

The demonstration highlights the challenge and importance of the ability to autonomously land an air vehicle that has sustained damage. This powerful capability can potentially save the military the significant expense of lost UAVs and better protect US proprietary technology. More importantly, when applied to manned aircraft, the combined technology solution can save lives.

Athena’s flight control systems are used today to control and autonomously land hundreds of UAVs in operation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Athena's controls technology is based on unique algorithms that have been developed and evolved in one and a half decades of use. The company’s evolutionary suite of control algorithms has been built on experience achieved on a variety of UAVs and flying over 160,000 hours in combat theater. Athena packages its controls technology with sensors and hardware, offering complete solutions through its GuideStar family of flight control and navigation products.

Athena Technologies was founded in 1998, and produces the GuideStar family of versatile, compact and cost-effective flight control systems for applications such as commercial aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), target drones and missiles.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored the demonstration which was held on April 18, 2007 at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.