April 30, 2009:
An analysis of U.S. Army and Air Force UAV losses revealed a valuable bit of information. The army uses automatic landing software for its larger UAVs, while the air force does not. Thus the air force has lost about a third of its UAVs to various equipment problems and operator errors, while the army loss rate was less than half that. Taking a closer look at the data, and it was clear that the army had avoided a lot of losses because of their automatic landing software. If the air force adopted this software, they could cut their UAV losses by at least 25 percent.
The air force uses pilots (of fighters, transports, for the most part) to fly their UAVs, while the army often uses non-pilots who have been trained just for operating UAVs. The military has found that most of their male recruits (and many of the females) have hundreds, if not thousands, of hours experience with video games. This makes it much easier to train them to operate UAVs, remote gun turrets, and all sorts of remotely controlled devices. The air force did use automatic landing software for a micro-light UAV, that was operated by non-pilots (to help guard air bases). Apparently someone thought that, with pilots as UAV operators, auto-landing software was not needed. In practice, the pilot sometimes lost contact with the UAV because of communications equipment problems. This usually meant the UAV would be lost. But the army software, in similar circumstances, had the UAV automatically turn around, go back to where it took off from, and land. The army also found that the automatic landing software was, overall, more successful at making safe landings than human pilots. The air force doesn't need much convincing, as they have already been doing a lot of work in this area
Last year, the air force successfully tested autonomous landing software on an F-16 fighter. Such systems have been available for commercial aircraft since the 1990s. Two years ago, the air force successfully tested such systems on C-130 transports. The replacement for the MQ-1B Predator UAV, the MQ-1C Sky Warrior, successfully tested automatic landing and takeoff software last year. This makes the aircraft easier and safer to use, and also is one step closer to a fully autonomous aircraft. There are already some fully autonomous UAVs, that can operate without any human control. The air force is particularly keen on making their UAVs more autonomous, to help ease the stress on its overworked UAV crews. Such automated systems on manned aircraft reduces the workload for the pilot.