Future F-35 pilots will operate drones from the cockpit

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — While the F-35 represents the future at Hill Air Force Base, the future of the F-35 is one with seemingly endless and previously unthinkable possibilities.

For example: controlling a fleet of drones from the cockpit of the next-generation fighter jet. No, it’s not part of a fantastical plot from a new science fiction movie, but an actual possibility in an Air Force future that will rely more and more on work performed by autonomous machines.

Last week, the Air Force released a “vision document” that includes plans for autonomous machines teaming up with Airmen and in many cases, performing warfare tasks independently. The document, titled “Autonomous Horizons,” was written by Air Force Chief Scientist Mica Endsley and provides guidance on the development of “autonomous systems” for Air Force operations while cluing in future makers of the systems on how they will be used by the service.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James says that while the world has seen unprecedented leaps in technology during the past 15 years, the Air Force will be left behind if it isn’t leading those advances.

“We must continue to leverage and develop new technologies and systems that provide our nation a competitive advantage and explore areas where the application of automation and autonomy makes sense and offers enhanced agility,” James said in a statement.

According to the document, teaming autonomous systems — like the unmanned MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper — with manned systems like the F-35, will allow the Air Force to enhance its future battlefield operations in a myriad of ways. Endsley says autonomous systems can reduce unnecessary manning costs, increase the range of operations, enhance capabilities and reduce the time required for certain operations.

As the Air Force’s home for the first operational fleet of F-35As and the force’s main repair and modification depot for both the ​MQ-1 and the MQ-9, Hill figures to play a big role in the Air Force’s push toward defense system autonomy.

The document says manned aircraft have already experienced increasing levels of automation over the past 30 years, with the new F-35 serving as the standard bearer.

The jet contains over 8 million lines of computer code, including advanced automation for sensors, voice recognition, and missile and threat management systems. Endsley says that trend will continue with autonomy being applied in a “much wider variety of tasks and functions.”

Those technological increases will also enhance the operation of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones. Most of the Air Force’s drones are controlled manually by pilots who are working from flight management computers at a location outside of the aircraft. But in the future, drones will be capable of performing many functions autonomously, the document says, which will allow them to be used in areas where communication for direct control of the drone is unreliable.

The autonomy could also kick in when speed is a factor, and target-observing sensors can work quicker than humans. 

The reports says “flexible autonomy” will allow the control weapons and other systems to “pass back and forth over time between the Airman and the autonomous system, as needed to succeed under changing circumstances.”

But Endsley emphasizes that machines won’t replace Airmen.

“This vision is both obtainable and sustainable — it leaves the authority and responsibility for warfare in the hands of Airmen while creating tools that enhance their situation awareness and decision making, speed effective actions and bring needed extensions to their capabilities,” Endsley said in a statement. 

“Rather than attempting to design the Airman out of the equation, the Air Force embraces the agility, intelligence and innovation that Airmen provide, along with the advanced capabilities of autonomy, to create effective teams in which activities can be accomplished smoothly, simply, and seamlessly.”

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