The chief scientist of the US Air Force has published a new report outlining a 20-year vision for science and technology research focused on advances in autonomous capabilities - in some ways making a mockery of his own service's more unusual policies.

Werner Dahm's argument is difficult to deny. Military spending is set for a squeeze, and manpower is by far the largest spending item that the USAF could cut. Replacing people with software-driven machines is the right thing to do, but less clear is whether USAF culture can absorb Dahm's worthy recommendations.

This is a service that has defied the global naming convention for unmanned aircraft systems, preferring instead remotely piloted aircraft (RPA).

In official communications, the USAF bizarrely attaches the RPA label to aircraft such as the Boeing ScanEagle that autonomously control all aspects flight.

It is true that the USAF's workhorse fleet of General Atomics MQ-1s and MQ-9s are remotely piloted by a ground-based, rated officer. But this reflects less the limits of current autonomous technology than the air force's cultural bias towards giving pilots full control.

The fact that the USAF requires seven trained pilots to control a combat air patrol of four MQ-9s should be considered scandalous. The US Army is content to let sergeants rather than officers operate its fleet of unmanned aircraft, which includes the MQ-1C Sky Warrior. With its preference for ground-based pilots, the USAF is unusual among world air forces.

Dahm describes a vision where autonomy gradually replaces human intervention as the USAF gains more trust in software-driven controls. It is a vision that can be realised today not by investments in new technology, but by changing a backward-looking culture.

A good example of USAF intransigence is automated landings, in which the army has invested, because it's safer than allowing a pilot to intervene remotely. Two years ago, the defence department finally forced the USAF to adopt the same technology for its Predators, which had compiled an alarming accident rate on fairly routine landings.

The age of pilot-controlled aircraft will not pass for several more decades, but it is coming to an end at a quicker pace than USAF culture is changing. It is to be hoped that Dahm's report will lay the groundwork for a new generation of USAF leadership to make the necessary cultural shift towards acceptance of greater levels of autonomous operations.

Source: Flight International