iv. Beyond the New Horizon: Unmanned Flight from World War II to Present
From the end of World War II to present, unmanned technology developed in relative lockstep with manned aviation. So intermeshed are the two today that the casual observer cannot see the difference between Optionally Piloted Aircraft (OPA) and manned aircraft. NASA is currently testing OPA fighter aircraft in aerial refueling missions. For these OPA tests, the onboard pilots program the intercept, then allow the automated pilot systems of the two aircraft to coordinate final resolution. The two aircraft communicate directly, with no pilot in the loop, and fly delicate aerial refueling profiles with no visible corrections between the two aircraft. With the addition of Automatic Takeoff and Landing Capabilities (ATLC), OPA become completely autonomous.
ATLC is being mastered on land. The U.S. Army Gray Eagle UAS uses a single button to launch a mission. To recover the aircraft, operators enter landing mode, and the aircraft flies to its pre-programmed runway, lands, and brakes to a complete stop. There, the operators exit landing mode and taxi the aircraft to the tarmac with a single joystick, similar to a computer mouse. The USAF Global Hawk eliminated the joystick altogether; the Human-Machine Interface (HMI) is entirely via keyboard, trackball and mouse for all phases of flight, including takeoff and landing. ATLC technology is now being tested successfully for aircraft carriers with far greater success and precision than manned aircraft. Approach profiles and plan views from Northrop-Grumman X-47B carrier suitability studies show a stark difference between manned and unmanned aircraft in similar weather conditions. Where manned profiles and plan views show a dynamically stable approach profile – the corrections get smaller and smaller approaching the ship’s simulated fantail – X-47B profiles and plan views show a rock steady approach from the initial intercept to touchdown, on the three-wire, every single time.