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Compared to many aeronautical curiosities that have taken wing at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at California’s Edwards Air Force Base over the years, the latest military test stunts did not appear very remarkable. Last April, a low-slung aircraft, about the size of a sport utility vehicle but with batlike wings similar to those of the B-2 stealth bomber, took off, flew at 10,500 meters and then dropped a 110-kilogram inert precision bomb while zipping along at 700 kilometers per hour. Four months later, a pair of the aircraft took off and flew together. These were modest stunts, to be sure, except for this fact: the jets have no pilots. They are the future of warfare, the first working models of networked autonomous attack jets, and the U.S. Department of Defense would like to start building them by 2010.

Eventually such planes will be military mainstays. Of this, most observers are sure; it is simply a lot less expensive – and safer – to send machines into battle than to send people, who require food, sleep, training, and pay. Humans can only tolerate so much G-force and are prone to error; unmanned aircraft have the potential to be more dependable. Already, lone unmanned planes – with humans at the remote controls – are widely used for surveillance. But the next crop of planes will fly in coordinated groups, with more autonomy. They’ll tackle jobs such as attacking enemy air defenses, identifying new targets, and releasing precision bombs. “The long-range vision is that the president will wake up some day and decide he doesn’t like the cut of someone’s jib and send thither infinite numbers of myrmidons – robotic warriors – and that we could wage a war in which we wouldn’t put at risk our precious skins” is how John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a leading defense policy website, puts it.

Realizing this vision will require the creation of new airborne communications networks and a host of control systems that will make these jets more autonomous (though always under the ultimate control of a person) than anything built to date. These are the goals of a $4-billion, five-year program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s advanced research arm. Though proposed Pentagon cuts are likely to push funding downward, the program is now DARPA’s largest. Under the program, the agency is paying aerospace behemoths Boeing and Northrop Grumman to develop distinct jets with common control systems; DARPA recently signed on the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to help with the myriad networking, control, and processing problems. Because, while DARPA is ordering up new flying machines, it is also requiring something far more important: the electronic brains to make them work. The jets “are technologically advanced aircraft, to be sure, but the soul…lies in the command and control, sensor, and weapons systems that enable their operation, individually and collectively,” explains DARPA program director Michael Francis.

The brain – which is housed on board and within ground-control stations – must do some difficult new things. It must not only keep the plane aloft and on course, but enable groups of planes to fly in coördinated fashion. It must rapidly keep up with changing communication links as the jets slice through the atmosphere at 700 kilometers per hour or faster. It must help make preliminary targeting decisions and drop bombs. While the planes must include the latest networking bells and whistles, they mustn’t be too complex to use, so that a single controller – on the ground or in a manned jet flying with the unmanned ones – can effortlessly shepherd fleets of them.

Making each piece work – and adaptable to new missions, and applicable to different flying machines that may be built in the future – presents daunting software and control challenges. But if it works, it could transform how war is waged.

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