A ghost in the machine
Thirty years ago my school careers guidance counsellor suggested that I investigate a future in the leisure industries. His skewed logic was that the growth of computers would overrun the workforce, availing people of a mountain of free time in which they would need to be entertained. So how’s that working out for everyone?
He also warned me off a career in aviation as by the year 2000, pilots would be increasingly redundant as automation replaced the man in the cockpit. Fortunately, I ignored all of his recommendations and pursued my chosen vocation in the air. Even so, his apocalyptic vision for pilots is coming a lot closer than his prediction regarding computers. Automation has indeed encroached heavily into the pilot’s domain and the growth of technology such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) is no longer futuristic.
Early steps in the pilot’s demise could be seen in the disappearance of their former comrades; the navigators and flight engineers. With the advent of autonomous navigation systems and automated power management, two crucial members of the flight deck have disappeared into obscurity. Only a small fleet of older generation aircraft and some specialised operations still call for a ‘Nav’ or ‘FEO’. And so the role of the pilot has diminished, offering up numerous manual tasks to onboard computers.
So the role of the pilot evolved to a more managerial position where crews, systems and aircraft are managed. The ‘stick and rudder’ skills became less crucial as autopilots were able to perform the task, freeing up the pilot’s brain-space to oversee the operation and maintain heightened situational awareness. The Captain’s of Ernest Gann’s books letting down on the NDB to the sound of rain thrashing against the fogging windscreen are rapidly becoming something of folklore. Today it is autopilot, auto-coupled and auto-landed and with the technology rapidly flowing downhill into small single pilot operations, the evolution is being witnessed across the full spectrum of aircraft.
Perhaps the most notable impact upon the brotherhood of pilots can be seen in UAVs. Rather than having pilots perched at the sharp end of the aircraft, they are seated at a ground-based console flying the aircraft remotely. Crews can be based in a mobile control van, or seated in a room on the other side of the planet. In any case, they are far removed from their UAV when it is on station and potentially in harm’s way. When the first unmanned Global Hawk flew non-stop from the United States to Australia in 2001, it highlighted that these vehicles had definitely come of age. With a range in excess of 12,000nm, a ceiling of 65,000 feet and an ability to remain aloft for periods in excess of 30 hours, the Global Hawk demonstrated immense potential to survey and gather data or intelligence.
Yet surveillance proved to be only one of many roles suited to the UAVs. No longer merely ‘drones’ these vehicles are able to patrol borders, carry remote sensing equipment relaying information about the atmosphere or flying into the heart of tornadoes where no sane pilot would venture. They possess a potential to transport goods or provide assistance to ‘Search and Rescue’ teams with onboard thermal sensors or cameras. The UAVs may be fixed wing in form, or rotary wing, such as the Northrop Grumman RQ-8A and MQ-8B ‘Fire Scout’. This UAV helicopter was successfully flown from a US naval vessel in 2006 and has been considered in roles as varied as over-horizon-communications to an airborne weapons platform. Bell Helicopters have also ventured down the tilt-rotor path with the ‘Eagle Eye’ which first flew in 1998 and struck a chord with the United States Coast Guard. It seemed that there were few roles and configurations that could not be encompassed by UAVs.
Yet it is in theatres of war that the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) is attracting the most headlines. Heavily armed MQ-1 Predators and more recently MQ-9 Reapers have had an impact on operations in global hot-spots such as Afghanistan and are re-writing the way that warfare is conducted. Carrying sensors and cameras, the UCAV has nasty teeth in the form of ‘Paveway’ laser-guided bombs, ‘Hellfire’ air-to-ground missiles and air-to-air ‘Sidewinders’. Such Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV) provide pin-point precision targeting without the need for exposing a pilot or his aircraft to the associated danger.
While UCAVs currently fly alongside piloted combat aircraft, is the day coming when all combat aircraft are unmanned? Northrop Grumman’s X-47 Pegasus project seems to be headed that way. Powered by a single high-bypass turbofan, the X-47 has the ability to fly at “high subsonic” speeds and bears a shape to reduce its radar signature, a little reminiscent of the B-2 bomber. Developed into the X-47B, the new improved UCAV is set to fly this year and has already been dubbed by some as the first nail in the fighter pilot’s coffin. Immune to physiological limitations, G-forces won’t render this aircraft unconscious in a tight turn and there is not a human life in harm’s way.
So is this the future of all aviation; faceless and guided by a remote hand? It is apparent that we are already moving steadily in that direction. The common catch-cry in civil aviation is that passengers won’t board a flight without a human crew ‘up the front’, yet passengers happily commute around Paris on trains that are void of drivers. Culture rather than technology is shaping as the limitation of this brave new world.
In aviation, science fiction has a long history of rapidly evolving into science fact. Whether we see human faith in automation mature to the extent that oceans are crossed without pilots on the flight deck will only be revealed in time. However, we are already seeing unmanned vehicles performing admirably in a diverse range of roles that could once only have been imagined. As their track record grows and their reliability is established, scepticism will slowly be eroded away. How long this will take is yet to be seen, but already there is little doubt that we are witnessing the growth of the ghost in the machine.