Turning Manned Aircraft Into Drones

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Historically, the United States has downsized its military after major conflicts. We’re lucky enough to keep a standing army, but not one at wartime levels of manpower and equipment. So what happens if you need to fly a critical mission but don’t have the flight crew? DARPA has a simple answer preceding some very complex technology:  make your bird unmanned.

Drones can handle plenty of missions from surveillance to combat, but they can’t move cargo or troops. . . at least not yet. Future drones may one day handle those functions. Preceding that event is some new tech from DARPA, the military’s hive of super minds, that modifies manned aircraft to become remotely piloted, partially human-supervised, or completely automatic. DARPA program manager Daniel Pratt adds the following on the Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS):

These capabilities could help transform the role of pilot from a systems operator to a mission supervisor directing intermeshed, trusted, reliable systems at a high level.

Getting in on the fun is Sikorsky Aircraft, the legendary helicopter manufacturer, with an Optionally Piloted Black Hawk (OPBH) variant. When bonded to some proprietary systems with other neat acronyms, the iconic Black Hawk can take missions with a single pilot or no pilot at all.

I used to play soccer in Springfield, Massachusetts. During games, I’d be interrupted by the sight of massive C-5 Galaxy cargo planes soaring in and out of nearby Westover Air Reserve Base. It was hard enough to picture four engines lifting those giants into the sky. It will be harder for me to imagine such a marvel flying sans human.

Could a Globemaster or Osprey move trucks and ammo successfully without an air crew? We’ll have to see how ALIAS and OPBH fare in the future!

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