As the fighter jet of the future rolls and climbs to outmaneuver an enemy plane and bore in for the kill, one thing will be missing: a pilot.
That’s the vision of Northrop Grumman Corp., which is working on an autonomous fighter programmed for aerial combat without human control. Northrop has already refueled its experimental X-47B unmanned combat jet in flight and made takeoffs and landings from an aircraft carrier.
“It’s a very dynamic, moving 3-D environment,” said Scott Winship, Northrop’s vice president of advanced warfare development. “It’s a difficult problem. But it’s something that we’re very keen to resolve.”
As drone makers and users gathered this week in Atlanta to discuss topics such as package deliveries and airborne surveys of rail lines, U.S. defense contractors outlined the emergence of vastly more complex technology in pilotless aviation. While a dogfighting drone remains “a ways out,” as Winship put it, the time frame for achieving that capability may be measured in years, not decades.
The U.S. military and Central Intelligence Agency have long used remotely piloted drones, including General Atomics’ propeller-driven Predator and Northrop’s Global Hawk jet, for surveillance and strikes against terrorists. Their suitability for more combat is limited because of slower speeds and wingspans too wide for aircraft carriers.
Experimental models such Northrop’s X-47B are showing how far the capabilities of unmanned aircraft can be pushed, Winship said Thursday in an interview.
“It’s fully autonomous,” Winship said. “It will do all the things it’s supposed to go do without having to call home.”
Northrop, the fifth-largest U.S. defense contractor, isn’t alone in developing drones that go beyond reconnaissance missions. Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and General Atomics are all working on a plane for the U.S. Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program.
The Defense Department is studying options such as an unmanned carrier-launched fighter and a possible drone version of the Long-Range Strike Bomber, the aircraft that will be a successor to the U.S. Air Force’s B-2. Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop is among the bidders on the bomber program. Unmanned systems have advantages in cost, design flexibility, longer flight times and reduction of risk to pilots, Winship said.
“I can replicate my software very quickly,” he said. “Making new pilots is much harder.”
Lack of human control is only one of the challenges in adoption of unmanned aircraft.
U.S. aerial missions in the past few decades such as anti-piracy patrols and enforcement of no-fly zones have typically required decision making from a pilot, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace and defense analyst with Teal Group.
“In an absolute world where we knew there was going to be an all-out shooting war, unmanned would be the way to go,” Aboulafia said. “But that’s not reality.”
Keeping technology away from an enemy also would become even more critical with a leap such as aerial robots, he said. In 2011, the U.S. lost contact with a Lockheed RQ-170 stealth drone only to have Iran display it on television days later.
Combat-drone capabilities aren’t in place just yet, Winship said. Software would have to replicate how pilots maneuver to gain the upper hand over an enemy. Sensors are becoming more powerful, but it’s still difficult to replicate what trained pilots see and how their brains react.
The issue is “how to program the smarts in,” Winship said. “I don’t want to pretend we have it solved, but we are working very hard on that.”
The X-47B’s mid-air refueling test last month showed how far autonomous aircraft have come, proving that the jet could home in on a tanker by itself for a fill-up. That capability means a combat drone could remain aloft for days instead of hours, Winship said -- a breakthrough that will change air-combat strategies and plane design.
Without a pilot, flight duration can reach 50 hours, only limited by inspections of mechanical parts such as actuators, Winship said. Those systems could be designed to go 100 hours or more between checks, allowing for even longer missions.
“You now have unlocked the potential of that airframe because it can now stay in the air measured in days, not measured in six or eight hours,” Winship said. “The power of unmanned is persistence.”
Longer flights could reduce the need for air bases in allied territory from which to fly, he said. Deploying unmanned combat jets also could be quicker than manned aircraft because there’s no need to have search-and-rescue teams in place to retrieve downed pilots, Winship said.
“It certainly changes the risk-tolerance equation,” he said. “It’s an expensive piece of iron, but it’s a piece of iron. It’s not somebody captured and on the ground.”