Robot aeroplanes are rapidly learning how to do pretty much anything that a human pilot can. The droid flyboys can take off, land, follow people about and even do in-flight refuelling. Plans are afoot to teach them how to do a catapult launch and arrested deck landings on aircraft carriers, too, and to fly entire strike missions on their own.
But the news today is perhaps even more remarkable. The latest ace-in-a-box tech can happily cope with large parts of its aircraft breaking off (or getting shot away by enemy forces) and yet still fly home to a safe landing.
Rockwell Collins, makers of bits and bobs to America's various aerospace titans, announced successful trials of their Automatic Supervisory Adaptive Control (ASAC) pilotware this week. Apparently ASAC didn't turn a hair when most of a wing was "ejected" from the scale-model jet fighter it was flying "to simulate battle damage and in-flight failure".
The unflappable software stick-jockey calmly "reacted to the airplane's new vehicle configuration, automatically regained baseline performance, continued to fly the plane, and then autonomously landed it," according to Rockwell.
Previous tests last year were much less ambitious, with only an aileron falling off rather than 60 per cent of a wing.
"We are pleased with the ability of our adaptive controls to instantly detect and react to the new vehicle configuration after loss of major sections of the wing. The ASAC controls technology enabled the airplane to continue to fly completely autonomously," said Mike Myers, Rockwell gov-biz supremo.
Naturally the bid to further enhance robotic supremacy over old-school fleshy flyboys was funded by DARPA, the famed Pentagon tech bureau whose pocketwatches often turn a bit melted and floppy - if you catch our drift. DARPA has been heavily involved in US military robot aircraft, and hope that the ability to survive combat damage could lower the fairly high loss rates currently suffered by America's aerial droid flotillas.
Video of the wing-flinging tolerance test can be watched here. ®