April 4, 2007 The networked battlespace of the not-too-distant future is beginning to look very much like a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic box office thriller, "The Birds" with hordes of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) combining to overwhelming effect. QinetiQ and the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) last week demonstrated a new system which provides a single pilot with the ability to fly their own military fast jet while simultaneously directing up to four further unmanned aircraft. The system gives unmanned aircraft an advanced level of autonomously - independent decision-making including self-organisation, communication, sensing the environment, identifying possible enemies, and targeting of weapons with the final decision to shoot retained by the human pilot. The technology developed for these trials is feeding the Taranis combat UAV and ASTRAEA projects, the latter exploring the use of UAVs for non-military applications. The ability to direct multiple UAVs could be useful for search and rescue, disaster relief operations and environmental monitoring, just for a start.
The 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.
The demonstration flights were conducted last week, taking off from MOD Boscombe Down in Wiltshire and flying largely in uncontrolled airspace over South West England. Throughout the sorties a mixed RAF and QinetiQ flight crew was retained on the 1-11 for safety monitoring 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.
Working in combination, the Tornado and four UAVs carried out a simulated ground attack on a moving target. The sophisticated computer on the UAVs allowed them to act autonomously i.e. self-organise, communicate, sense their environment, including possible enemies, and target their weapons. However, the final decision to fire any (simulated) weapons was retained by the Tornado pilot. The system has been designed to provide the UAVs with a significant degree of independent intelligence in order to greatly reduce the workload of the pilot but also ensures that the most important decisions are retained by a human operator.
Tony Wall, Managing Director of QinetiQ's Air Division, said: "The UK is playing a leading role in the development of UAV technology and this autonomy programme is truly world-leading. 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 realised 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 programmes. QinetiQ is playing a leading role in the Taranis project, a £124 million joint industry and MOD initiative to develop an autonomous unmanned combat aircraft. QinetiQ's technology is also supporting the £32 million ASTRAEA project, a joint industry and DTI initiative to explore the technical and regulatory challenges of using UAVs for civil and commercial applications. 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.