This Could Be The Last Generation Of Human Pilots.

by Daniel Russ on July 9, 2013


The University of Pennsylvania engineer Daniel Mellinger at GRASP laboratories created a series of nano-drones, each featured four rotors and all linked by carrier wave. Recently, engineers Professor Vijay Kumar and Alex Kushleyev pushed the invention into a swarm of 20 nano-quadrotors and demonstrated their ability to fly not just in formation, but in cooperation, making decisions on their own determining the best way to reach a target.


This video that otherwise would be lost in a panoply of student engineering jobs posted to YouTube, has over 7 million views. That’s a lot more interest in an engineering feat than in Nicki Minaj’s newest gaffe on American Idol. In a curiously incurious country, this is a lot of interest in something scientific.


Take a look at the embedded video and one cannot help but imagine that a properly orchestrated group of combat drones could overwhelm almost any target. Each drone acting as a sensor stream into a larger database, looking at the target, or targets, assessing the orientation and weaknesses and deciding when and how to hit it. The irrefrangible rule that a person, a pilot, can never be replaced is itself misplaced. We may have pilots in the form of human beings making combat decisions but few of them will be airborne. Also the automation of complex missions will increase until the user only has to imagine the mission and the machines figure out their own way to execute the missions. In an engineering environment when a cell phone can recognize your voice and follow an order, a group of processors, interlinked, wil be able to make decisions together and act smarter than an airborne battle manager can.


There are other new technologies that can enhance auto drone motion, and one of them is omnidirectional vision, joint DARPA GRASP project that would give a drone the ability to look in any and all directions all at the same time.


GRASP Labs is also working with modular robots. These are not individual robots so much as a system of robots that appear to be acting independently but really are not. GRASP says:  “They can change their configuration to suit a given task. These systems are inherently robust due to their redundancy, adaptability, and ability to self-repair.”


Robotics engineers are also creating robots that mimic locomotion found in nature, or invent their own way of moving around. Heuristic computers can solve problems on their own.


I am certain that at the next year’s Air Force Association meeting in Washington, perorations about the never ending need for human pilots will garner applause and perhaps mollify a few up and coming pilots worried about the prospects of pilotless aircraft. The technology that makes drones effective and cheap is growing exponentially. The processing power that allows a machine to ratiocinate is also growing exponentially. As these two technologies are amalgamated into the same weapons systems, it will not be long before drone swarms fly CAPs, look for trouble, and attack.


Western armies have not really given in to tradition as easily as one might think. Yes, you can still join the Hussars in the British Army. But it was the British who developed the Harrier. You see the traditions and the care and feeding of history most often falls behind the need to win. It required  only 66 years to go from Kitty Hawk to Tranquility Base. When networked robots prove superior fighters to combat aircraft, when dead robots mean money and dead people mean pain, when it becomes cheaper to produce dronebots than air fleets, then Terminator is on.


The adaptation to automated combat systems will happen faster than we ever imagined. Today, as I write this, 5 Americans were killed in Afghanistan, some from IEDs, some from Blue on Gray killings. Pettifog all day long about the legality of it, the practicality of it, the cost of it. When a robot is a better, cheaper, and simpler vacuum cleaner than a person with a machine, you will see robots patrolling your neighborhood, most likely from the air.


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