Robert Work, Deputy Secretary of Defense in the US, has stated that there has been little progress toward developing autonomous vehicles compared to the drastic advances seen in the aerospace industry. The second-in-command has indicated that the military will likely see unmanned aircraft piloting themselves before it integrates autonomous ground vehicles. Drones that can perform similar activities already exist and are in frequent use, but these units still require a ground operator to send instructions.

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Cars that have been developed by companies such as Google have focused on vehicles that can navigate traffic and potential hazards such as pedestrians or other cars, largely on tarmac. However, the defense sector requires more vehicles that can drive off road, on difficult terrain, and this area lacks the R&D put into UAVs and the aerospace industry in general.

While autonomous aircraft are expected first, autonomous sea travel is already on the horizon, according to Work. Lethal authority, readers will be pleased to know, will not be delegated to machines’ autonomy. Unmanned fighter jets will simply be in control of navigating the airways and identifying other aircraft and ground targets. While the Pentagon retired the X-47B drone (image below) the test flights carried out have notably contributed to current programs to develop autonomous fighter jets.

X47B Flight 007. This was the first gear up flight for AV-1. Edwards AFB, CA. September 30, 2011. AFFTC Aerial Photographer Christian Turner.

US Air Force’s Loyal Wingman program is experimenting with F16 fighter jets flying with no human instruction. The authority plans to insert a “brain” into current-generation Lockheed F-16s and F-35s. These two, a fighter jet and an advanced battle network node, could operate together in future battles. Boeing produces unmanned QF-16 target drones by building on the shells of retired F-16A/Cs. In fact, the airplane manufacturer signed a renewal contract for 30 conversions in March of this year, at a cost of US$34 million. In the meantime the Air Force Research Laboratory has begun to update algorithms for pilotless fighter jets.

Robert Work agrees with technology experts that the eventual integration of autonomous vehicles, aircraft, and sea vessels into both the military and consumer market is inevitable. The Loyal Wingman program will be formally launched in 2018, earlier than we may have expected to see autonomous battle vehicles, and flight demonstrations will likely continue well into 2022.

Data source: Science Daily, Flight Global.

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