Keeping up with Watchkeeper
It’s a question that Barry Trimmer and his colleagues have spent the past three years puzzling over as part of Project CLAIRE, a collaborative effort between Thales, the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) and National Air Traffic Systems (NATS).
“Project CLAIRE was about demonstrating that you could get a UV into unsegregated airspace – which is airspace shared with commercial traffic,” Trimmer explains. “During the first flight, we moved to shared airspace – the same airspace as airliners – under control of air traffic control, which was a real first.”
Trimmer says the next leap forward will be the safe use of “sense-and-avoid” technology, installed to allow a vehicle to safely navigate in the event that a data link is lost.
“If the link fails, you’re probably going to hit the ground at some point,” Trimmer says. “You’re going to go through what they call ‘Class G airspace’, with no connection to the ground station. In that scenario, the vehicle has to make its own decisions.”
Thales has invested in two sense-and-avoid technologies under European initiatives. One uses optical sensors to replicate visual flight rules and the other envisages a radar sensor to sense-and-avoid in low visibility conditions.
The successful deployment of sense-and-avoid technology represents a genuine sea change, and would open up the potential of UVs to a far greater range of uses.
“Sense-and-avoid is the technology you need if you’re going to deploy any civil UV for any purpose at all. That includes civil surveillance or disaster response or any of those things,” Trimmer explains.
Sense-and-avoid involves the kind of automation already seen in the “rules of the air” followed by any automated flight system. This is definitely credible in the short-term.
The technology – the UV’s “brain” – operates as a failsafe in the event of malfunction.
“For example, if we lost an engine, that would lead to the UV breaking out of controlled airspace,” says Trimmer. “UVs are expected to be safe in the event the data link is lost so that’s another really important, basic feature of UAV design – to be safe if the UV loses its control link.”
In this case, breaking through into uncontrolled airspace “safely” means that the UAV will see what’s around and will take action to avoid anything nearby, without any intervention.
This is the keystone of the next phase of UV development, which will see these vehicles transform from unthinking surveillance and attack devices following automated sense-and-avoid protocols into “sentient” vehicles, with much more autonomy than current models. Reydellet, however, sounds a note of caution, especially in reference to UVs.
“To work alongside humans, military robots and unmanned systems will need to display a number of human traits, such as intelligence, mobility and discretion,” he says. “They will need to provide measurable operational benefits and remain under the direct control of their human handlers at all times.”
Clearly, the possibilities for UVs to sense and learn from their environment are enormous. However, Reydellet believes that while the current sensor technology has only just begun to show what UVs can do, we’re still a long way from fully autonomous vehicles.
“As the sensors in UVs become smarter, computation loads will need to increase, in order to achieve autonomy for a fully unmanned operation,” he says. “But no suitable onboard processing solution currently exists.” In essence, the majority of the UVs “brain” will remain in the remote control station for the time being.
The big challenge for those working on UAVs now is to balance autonomy with computing efficiency – grappling with the size, weight and power restrictions that currently prevail when building a UV for both civil and military use.
The next frontier is clearly visible, however – building UVs that fit comfortably into wider systems. Whether that means a surveillance drone capturing and analysing intelligence on the wing or a USV directing other nearby vehicles through mined waters, the brains of these vehicles are developing at an astonishing rate.