Murphy's Law: December 31, 2003


The U.S. Air Force insists that the UAVs it uses be operated by pilots. This doesn't make much sense, as "flying" a UAV requires much less training and skill than flying a manned aircraft. Thus the air force faced a quandary when it developed a seven pound mini-UAV (the Desert Hawk) for patrolling around air bases. The Desert Hawk design was adapted to avoid this, and allow NCOs to operate it, by developing software that "flew" the UAV. All the operator had to do was set the flight path, or use their computer mouse to click on a point the UAV should circle. All of this makes a lot of sense, as current flight software design is capable of handling routine flight maneuvers. Moreover, air force pilots who operate larger UAVs complain of being at a disadvantage because they can't "feel" what the UAV is doing. This makes it more difficult to send the correct flight instructions and, well, makes it more of a hassle to fly. Flight software is used in manned aircraft, and automatic pilots. This stuff has been around for decades and commercial pilots have long taken advantage of very capable auto-pilot software to do most of the work. In fact, auto-pilot software can even handle landings, and often does in bad weather (where the pilot can't see anything.) The flight software used in the Desert Hawk will probably become the standard for UAVs. Actually, the largest UAV currently in use, the Global Hawk, already uses a powerful auto-pilot software system to make trans-oceanic flights, and land at the other end. Given the huge cost in training pilots (millions of dollars, depending on the aircraft type), the air force will probably install this kind of software in all their UAVs and let NCOs operate them. That will leave more money to buy more aircraft, always a more attractive option for air force brass. 


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