Would You Want To Be A Passenger On A UAV?

Aug. 18, 2011
You ride on unattended elevators and trains in airports but would you fly on an unmanned aircraft? The opportunity to do so may not be as far away as you might think.

Its an Engineering IO question we should ask in the future but for now I put it to you: Would You Fly On A UAV?

But isn't the reason for an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) to take the man out of the aircraft? Yes but it is really about taking the crew out of the vehicle. It just turns out that for most of the applications right now that is all of all of the people that will be in the aircraft.

The thing is that the reason for taking people out of the control loop is something that has been occurring for quite awhile as technology has made it possible. There are at least two common instances that people put their lives into the hands of intelligent machines: elevators and airport/subway trains. Both used to have human operators. Some still do and some still have human oversight but very few elevators have human operators other than the passengers.

The difference between these and future unmanned vehicle scenarios is the lack of many restrictions on where the vehicle can go. In the case of elevators, the vehicle can only go up and down. For the trains, they stay on the track although they may switch between tracks. They are also very safe and had quite a bit of design work to make them safe as well as efficient.

So why this discussion now? Well, I was at the AUVSI show in Washington, DC this week. You can check out many of the things I saw on Engineering TV's AUVSI coverage like Lockheed Martin's Samuri (watch Samarai UAV Inspired by Maple Seed). I also talked with a number of people at Rockwell Collins that released their The Coming Revolution in Airspace Operation: Preparing for NextGen and SESAR ebook at the show. It raises many of the questions about mixing UAVs and manned aircraft which is one of the important questions that must be answered before you could be a passenger on a UAV.

Rockwell Collins is well placed to ask and answer many of the questions brought out in their ebook. Some of the technology Rockwell Collins sells includes autonomous flight control systems for UAVs (watch Rockwell Collins Autonomous Flight Control Systems). Last year at AUVSI they showed a demo where a substantial portion of an unmanned F/A-18 subscale model air vehicle was destroyed Rockwell Collins UAV Damage Tolerance). The UAV remained under autonomous control and landed safely.

The challenges are numerous without these related questions but all are being asked and addressed right now. There is also a demand for these type of services right now. Most are related to combat environments. Lockheed Martin's SMSS (Squad Mission Support System) is an semi-autonomous and autonomous ground vehicle (AGV) that could easily carry one or more people. Automatically driving an injured soldier to an aid station is just one example.

Science fiction often has robotic vehicles that are second nature for people in the stories. Hopping in a robot cab or car may eventually get to that point and UAVs may get to this point sooner.

These kinds of changes can be exciting as well as frightening. Either way, they are coming.

So the question remains: Would You Want To Be A Passenger On A UAV?

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