Sitting back in a leather chair, with both hands on the controls, I'm scanning three flat-screen monitors in front of me, on the lookout for my next target. Sounds like a sneak peek of the latest shoot-'em-up video game, right?
Think again. This is the next generation of ground controls for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), sometimes also known as drones, used by the U.S. Air Force and its overseas counterparts. As remote-controlled planes take on larger military roles in both Iraq and Afghanistan, defense companies are borrowing techniques from the video-game industry to make it easier for pilots on the ground to fly these unmanned aircraft from afar.
That's the bet Waltham (Mass.) defense electronics giant Raytheon (RTN) has taken with its new Universal Control System (UCS). On display at the biennial Farnborough Air Show in Britain, this next-generation ground control system for the likes of General Atomics' Predator UAV has more in common with the Sony (SNE) PlayStation 3 than with the Northrop Grumman (NOC) F-14 Tomcat made famous by the classic 1980s movie Top Gun.
Based around a multiscreen console complete with on-screen health and weapons updates, Raytheon's UCS has cherry-picked elements from the gaming industry to give pilots more control over their unmanned aircraft. The UAV's onboard camera, for example, has been augmented with digital images similar to Google Earth (GOOG) that give the operator an almost 180-degree view. That lets Raytheon overlay other data, such as where troops are located, on top of the enhanced view in the same way video games offer players extra on-screen information.
"Gaming companies have spent millions to develop user-friendly graphic interfaces, so why not put them to work on UAVs?" says Mark Bigham, business development director for Raytheon's tactical intelligence systems. "The video-game industry always will outspend the military on improving human-computer interaction."
Raytheon is hoping its ability to mimic popular video games will win over UAV manufacturers such as Northrop Grumman, as well as the Air Force. Currently, each unmanned aircraft uses a bespoke ground control system that makes it difficult for pilots to switch from one kind of UAV to another.
The highly technical nature of the current systems also has caused other problems. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, over two-thirds of Predator UAV crashes are due to human errors interacting with the flight controls, which has cost taxpayers millions of dollars. "We think we can cut that figure in half," says Raytheon's Bigham.
A $500 Million Savings
How much money does the company think it could save the military? Over the next 10 years, Raytheon estimates its next-generation ground control system could reduce costs for the U.S. Air Force by $500 million. That's based on decreasing the frequency of UAV crashes, cutting the time spent training pilots, and shrinking the number of operators required to fly unmanned aircraft.
So far, the industry has been receptive to Raytheon's UCS, which should become fully operational by the first half of 2009. Edward Walby, Northrop Grumman's business development director for unmanned systems, believes improving the human interaction with unmanned aircraft will become increasingly important as UAVs take on larger military and civilian roles. While he won't comment specifically on Raytheon's system, Walby says better ground systems will "allow operators to be completely engaged with their operations."
Not that Raytheon is limiting the application of its gaming-inspired console to UAVs. According to Bigham, the system already has been used to pilot unmanned boats and submarines. Mining and oil companies also have shown interest in the product, which could be installed on drilling equipment to reduce the risk for humans working in mines or on offshore platforms.
While that may seem like a big departure from first-person video games, Raytheon's system is based on similar technology that has made products such as Microsoft's (MSFT) Halo and Ubisoft's (UBIP.PA) Splinter Cell runaway hits. The Massachusetts-based company only can hope that its foray into the UAV market will be equally successful.