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Remote Navigator
Aeronautics researchers develop a remote-controlled wingman
By Davin Wilfrid

In the skies over Edwards Air Force Base in California last June, a crewman in an F-15 entered a series of commands into a computer. Yards away, a T-33 training plane began steering through an obstacle course of no-fly zones without its pilot lifting a finger.

The demonstration was the culmination of four years of work by Mario Valenti, SM ’03, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering and computer science, and Tom Schouwenaars, a doctoral candidate in aeronautics and astronautics. Using a new guidance system the two helped to develop, pilots can send commands to nearby unmanned aircraft, ordering them into dangerous or unknown areas while the pilots keep a comfortable distance. “The pilot essentially treats the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] as a wingman,” searching for and avoiding obstacles such as radar and missile sites, says Valenti.

The military has used unmanned aircraft for years, but the advantage of manned-to-unmanned control of UAVs, Valenti says, is that pilots in the air have a lot more information to work with than those on the ground and are therefore better able to steer the unmanned craft into areas of interest. “It’s like the difference between going to a Red Sox game and watching it on TV,” he says. “There’s something different about being there.”

Researchers will eventually integrate voice-recognition software into the system. Once this happens, it will be possible to bring pilots up to speed on the commands with minimal training. “We’re using the same lingo the pilots use,” says Schouwenaars.

The students estimate that the software could be ready for use in combat within a few years, if not sooner, but the project, which is funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (see “The Ascent of the Robotic Attack Jet”), has applications beyond the military. Valenti and Schouwenaars say systems like theirs can lead to advances in robotics (think: mail-fetching robots) and, if commercial planes are outfitted with the systems, better air traffic control.

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