Magazine article National Defense

Unmanned Combat Aircraft Still in 'Adolescent Phase'

Magazine article National Defense

Unmanned Combat Aircraft Still in 'Adolescent Phase'

Article excerpt

Despite recent successful flight tests, the Air Force unmanned combat aircraft, called the UCAV, remains in the "adolescent phase" of its development, said Stan Kasprzyk, program manager for the UCAV at the Boeing Co.

Boeing is under contract to develop the X-45 UCAV for the U.S. Air Force. The unmanned bomber is designed to launch 800-, 1,000-, and 2,000-pound joint direct attack munitions (JDAM) and small diameter bombs. It also could, one day, deploy directed energy weapons and conduct electronic jamming missions.

Two X-45A prototypes are being flight-tested. A larger version, the X-45C, is in development and could fly by 2006, according to Boeing.

These vehicles are only "dust covers" for weapons and avionics systems, Kasprzyk told a conference of the Precision Strike Association.

Compared to UAVs such as the Predator, the UCAVs mark a drastic departure in the way they are operated. The UCAV has no stick or rudders. The control of the vehicle is programmed on the ground.

"It's a major paradigm shift in the operator community, moving from piloting to mission operator," said Kasprzyk.

He characterizes the current state of the UCAV technology as being in the "adolescent phase," because platforms have been unreliable, limited to short duration missions, vulnerable to enemy fire, weather and other restrictions.

More advances are needed in on-board data processing said Kasprzyk. "The goal is to do data fusion and automatic target recognition on board."

One significant cultural issue for the operators is the "situational awareness," he explained. The question is whether only the pilot can have situational awareness or whether the vehicle also can attain some level of awareness, "if you have enough computing power."

Sensor inputs, he noted, should contribute to how well the vehicle can accomplish the mission. …

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