The Pentagon-funded Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has thus far been the driving force in advances in drone technology. And right now DARPA is working on ways to allow a single person to command an entire fleet of aircraft. What might that look like? Think Ender, in Ender’s Game.
The goal for robotics is to create machines that do work more efficiently than humans, or to do work that humans simply can’t. And although modern unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) are flown without a pilot physically present on the craft, the technology still requires humans to operate it. A team of technicians, including a pilot with a joystick, are still required to keep a single Predator in flight.
In order to have one operator direct a fleet of these aircraft, the drones must be able to fly autonomously. The UAV’s will need the ability to discern and locate other aircraft in order to avoid crashing, be able to detect danger and threats, and coordinate with other drones to track and scout terrain. Most importantly, they must be able to withstand hacking and jamming attempts by the enemy when flying over “denied environments.”
DARPA calls this type of aircraft reconnaissance “Collaborative Operations in Denied Environments”, or CODE. The corporeal supervisor doesn’t necessarily have to be a pilot at a remote location operating in a flight room. It could be a human pilot in the field using a robot as his or her wingman, with the bots performing the most dangerous part of the mission.
The Navy has been one of the other leading researchers in the drone industry. Their unmanned helicopters, exploration submarines and sensory devices are tested and deployed constantly. Northrop Grumman completed testing last year of its second generation Fire Scout, the MQ-8C, an autonomously flown reconnaissance helicopter that can take off on its own from a naval aircraft carrier. The Navy also contracted Boston Engineering, who built the GhostSwimmer, a torpedo-styled unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) that looks like a five foot long tuna fish.
The GhostSwimmer uses biomimicry aspects to move the UUV; instead of a propeller-driven system to operate the UUV, the drone moves its tail up and down and to either side just as a fish would. The GhostSwimmer could be used for recon, sentry missions, shallow water mine operations and hull inspections.
Reconnaissance brings to mind photographing enemy territory, but it’s also an important tool used in military travel and deployments. The Office of Naval Research has funded and developed certain UUV’s that paint a detailed picture of the ocean’s temperature, topography, currents, wildlife and water depths. A drone that monitors the ocean’s conditions can allow a SEAL team to prep the proper gear, and swim in the right direction as quickly and quietly as possible, as well adjust their previous calculations to real-time observations. The salinity and temperature affects how far sound travels through water, and this information is vital in traveling undetected near enemy waters. Current satellites gauge water temperatures by using infrared light, but infrared only penetrates a few centimeters beneath the surface, which is not not deep enough to measure deep ocean temperatures. UUV drones solve this problem.
Experimenting with these different types of drones for military advantages in battlefield is not the only mission of these agencies. There are specialized drones being developed for medical transport, for natural disaster rescue operations and for other unstable locations that would present risks to humans, like nuclear radiated landscapes, and battle fields with weaponized toxic hazards.
This drone technology is slowly creeping into commercial applications, and revealing its usefulness in various situations that were previously too difficult for human involvement. The process of filtering down through the various military branches and government agencies spearheaded by politicians will invariably take its time, and might provoke new legislation. Lawmakers, who are always playing “catch-up” to technology, will have to consider the safety and rights of citizens in regards to drones. New materials require testing to ensure their safety in the hands of consumers. Last but not least, there will have to be regulations on the operators, to limit the extent that the average consumer will be permitted to use this technology in relation to the military.
As with many new technologies, the future civilian uses for drones can be predicted by their current military applications. From telephone and radio, to food preservatives, vehicles, computers, and the Internet, just about every new technology was first used and advanced by the military before being handed over to the public.
What seems crazy now will seem utterly routine one day:
“Wait, there’s a camera inside my telephone? Are you crazy?!”
Talking about drones is like talking about a cell phone 20 years ago: the potential exists to affect all our day-to-day lives in ways nobody can imagine. Yet.