Good news today for people who like flying cars or flying robots, but clouds on the horizon for professional pilots and air-traffic controllers. Trials by US aerospace colossus Lockheed have shown that lightweight, distributed, automated systems can easily deconflict pilotless aircraft operating in crowded airspace.
Lockheed boffins from the globocorp's Advanced Technology Laboratories (ATL) arm announced their success this week. The kit in question is called Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Airspace Management System (UAMS), and it has now proven itself in trials with aerial robots near Pittsburgh.
"The successful use of UAMS on in-flight UAVs caps three years of program development," said David Van Brackle, ATL's top auto-air-traffic brain.
"Our work will improve safety and mission success for future UAV systems and for the Warfighters who depend upon them."
The UAMS project is funded by the US Army, which already issues its ground combat units with many small UAVs for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. However, air-traffic conflicts often mean that these aircraft can't be used as often as the soldiers would like.
On the face of it, deconfliction of unpiloted aircraft should be relatively simple in the modern era. GPS satnav is a negligible capability, present in almost every UAV, and it can tell an aircraft where it is to within a few metres.
Up-to-date digital networking can thus create an accurate 3D picture in real time of all the planes and what they're doing, and follow simple rules to direct them out of each other's way. Even if the decisions are still made by humans and communicated by voice, the greater accuracy and faster update rate of networked GPS (as compared to radar) allows more aircraft to be in a given amount of airpspace.
There are, in fact, steps being taken in America to use this sort of kit for normal manned aviation in place of centralised radar control - facing strong opposition, as one might expect, from air-traffic controllers' unions. But the US Army, operating unmanned aircraft in a warzone or a military exercise area, can largely disregard civil regs.
Hence UAMS, envisaged by the Army as a "battalion echelon system" - that is, one which is fairly lightweight and easily deployed by smaller ground units, and which requires little manpower. UAMS uses a ground-based server and intelligent software agents aboard the aircraft to be managed, and also offers onboard "see and avoid" sensors to deal with intruders which aren't hooked up to the UAMS net. According to Lockheed ATL, the system can distribute most of the work to the airborne programs, handle it mainly on the server, or combine the two approaches flexibly.
So now US Army ground formations - at least in airspace free of manned aircraft - can send up as many robo-craft as they like, happy in the knowledge that they will deconflict themselves automatically and suffer no collisions. That's all good news for soldiers wanting to use their rapidly proliferating skydroids more easily.
It's also, perhaps, good news for other kinds of pilotless aircraft - such as the long-anticipated flying cars of the future. One of the most serious barriers to everybody having an aerial car is the fact that normal air-traffic systems could never cope with such numbers. Another problem is that handling an aircraft under tight ground control - as is necessary in crowded airspace and/or cloudy weather - is a highly involved task, calling for advanced skills and qualifications on the part of a human pilot. Not many ordinary people would have the necessary time, money and aptitude to acquire such skills; fewer still would be rich enough to hire instrument-qualified chauffeur pilots. Even a basic private pilot's licence, allowing flights only in good weather and open skies, is a significantly bigger cost and time hurdle than a driver's licence.
Thus, a flying car for ordinary consumers would in effect have to be an aerial passenger-carrying robot, able to pilot itself - much like the latest UAVs of today, which can fly an entire mission including takeoff and landing without any remote piloting by humans. But aerial cars would also have to work with a high-capacity, affordable, probably distributed automatic air traffic networks; ones rather like UAMS, in fact.
Of course, there are many other obstacles standing in the way of flying cars - scepticism, cost, noise, takeoff run, genuine ability to drive on roads as well as fly. It will also be a long road from today's UAMS to automated urban air-traffic networks as ubiquitous as traffic lights; a road that may well never be travelled.
But at least it's been shown to be possible. And, while automated civil flying cars remain far-fetched, automated military aircraft are already a reality. ®