Warplanes: Cockpits For UAVs


August 6, 2008: U.S. UAV operators are trying to convince UAV manufacturers that it would be in everyone's interest if the UAV controls were literally based on a fighter aircrafts cockpit. That setup is the result of over 80 years of research and experience. Why try and reinvent the wheel for UAVs. Even non-pilots (who operate many of army and marine UAVs) are familiar with modern fighter cockpits, from playing with flight simulator game software. While these games are basically designed for a computer keyboard, they will also work with joystick accessories you plug into your computer.

Ideally, the UAV operators would like workstations laid out like a cockpit, with the flat panel displays (displaying what the UAV cameras see) placed so as to show what the pilot would see if they looked in a particular direction (assuming the UAV had a camera that showed anything in that direction.) One problem with UAVs is that they don't give the pilot a lot of views, but it saves the pilot seconds if he just looks in the direction the camera is pointing.

Laying out a lot of other instruments and controls, using cockpit conventions, would save lots of time. Modern fighter cockpits put a lot of the workload on a few multi-function displays, some of them using a touch sensitive screen. But these are designed to maximum ease of use. A particular peeve of fighter pilots flying UAVs, is the hassle they have to go through to launch a Hellfire missile. It's a lot quicker in a fighter cockpit. In fact, everything is done a lot more quickly in a fighter cockpit.

The larger UAVs, like the Predator and Reaper, have a sensor operator (who, even in the air force, is not a trained pilot) and that job resembles that of the GIB (Guy In The Back) in two seat fighters. The sensor operator keeps track of what the cameras (and other sensors) pointed to the ground, are picking up. A little better controls layout would help here as well, but not as urgently as some help for pilots.

The video game manufacturers have already seen their game controller technology adapted to operate micro (under 10 pound) UAVs used by the infantry. The UAV manufacturers, and companies that supply cockpit equipment, or play accessories for flight software games, see a sales opportunity, and new gear for larger UAVs is in the works. UAVs are considered a growth market, with ample future opportunities.


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