Drone aircraft will be smarter, more social

Developers unveil plans for unmanned aerial vehicles that will be more intelligent and coordinate with each other while in flight. Photos: The next generation of unmanned aircraf

ARLINGTON, Va.--Fighter jet pilots may one day go the way of Zeppelin airship captains.

Defense contractors, aided by millions of taxpayer dollars spent in a federal research program, are experimenting with new prototypes for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, that are becoming more intelligent and more autonomous. They could represent another step toward drone aircraft that are self-guided rather than remotely controlled by a human on the ground.

At a three-day U.S. Navy conference here this week, the small businesses presented about a dozen UAV-related designs, including models that are intended to do things like take off and land on water. Another UAV software design is intended to enable a group of drones to communicate while aloft, something that could let them coordinate movements like a flock of birds.

The U.S. Army eventually hopes to put at least one tiny UAV in every platoon in Iraq, Kevin Blenkhorn, director of unmanned systems for 21st Century Systems, said at the conference held at a Hyatt Regency Hotel. (The event was the Navy Opportunity Forum and serves as something of a showcase for smaller companies that receive six-figure research grants and hope to interest the military in the resulting designs.)

The trouble is, as Blenkhorn saw firsthand during a recent stint flying UAVs as a military enlistee in Iraq, the process of maneuvering and monitoring a UAV typically requires the operator's undivided attention. That makes it difficult to, say, stop and pick up a rifle if necessary.

Arlington, Va.-based 21st Century Systems is developing a software-based ground control system aimed at relieving the human operator from some of that burden. Its goal by 2009 is to finalize software that requires only 1 percent to 5 percent of the aircraft operator's attention, as opposed to the current systems, which Blenkhorn estimated require anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent.

The military has been using UAVs for years in Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, and they've been soaring in popularity because they can be a way of accomplishing surveillance and other tactical goals while keeping soldiers out of harm's way. More recently, the Bush administration has voiced interest in putting UAVs to use by border patrol officers attempting to stop Mexicans from crossing the border illegally.

Police are also experimenting: One North Carolina county reportedly dispatched a UAV equipped with low-light and infrared cameras to monitor gatherings of motorcycle riders at its fairgrounds from just a few hundred feet in the air and planned to expand that use to aerial detection of marijuana fields.

Blenkhorn's firm is hoping to capitalize on this growing interest. It's designing algorithms capable of accurately recognizing and tracking the path of moving targets such as boats and people; coordinating automated takeoffs and landings of multiple aircraft; and ensuring UAVs remain in designated safe areas, free from potential collisions with other aircraft.

When the new software is complete, for instance, "basically, you can draw a box and the software will keep the aircraft in that area," Blenkhorn said.

Another set of algorithms under development by Augusta Systems, a 22-employee company headquartered in Morgantown, W.Va., aims to allow swarms of UAVs to interpret data about targets from onboard cameras or sensors and share that information with other vehicles.

The groups of drones could also be programmed to prowl areas of interest in a swarm, all the while ensuring that the same search areas are not duplicated by fellow drones, that the vehicles do not cross into no-fly zones, and that higher-priority areas are searched before lower-priority ones. The company is still working on refining its algorithms and hopes to embed its technology in a successful mission by 2010.

Other forms of UAVs showcased Tuesday were more squarely aimed at keeping manned vehicles out of the line of fire. A few of them are specifically tailored to the P-3 Orion aircraft, which is designed for maritime surveillance missions.

But the P-3s face some inherent obstacles, the Navy says. They're relatively slow, which lowers their defenses against enemy fire, and flying them in a reconnaissance pattern around a target at a low altitude can add to fuel costs.

An Indiana-based company called Lite Machines is developing a three-pound helicopter UAV that could be launched from such a plane--either on its own or in swarms--while allowing the plane to remain at a 15,000-foot distance above the target. The UAV would be capable of hovering within inches of a target and could conceivably make contact to attach a tracking sensor, said Jon Maynell, the company's strategic communications manager.

Lite Machines says the device could also be launched by hand--for instance, out of windows in skyscrapers, in and out of stairwells, or into caves--to gather information about a given area. The company is hoping the gadget, which recently completed a successful stress test, will be ready for deployment by next year.

Featured Video