Sixty years ago, Ralph Bakken built the first airplane to fly without a pilot. It’s a device called a “bullet plane,” a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that doesn’t rely on a pilot because it is steered and controlled entirely by a computer chip. It’s a precursor to today’s unmanned flying vehicles and, one day, to personal robots and delivery vehicles.
According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, there are more than 200,000 unmanned aircraft systems in use today, including Lockheed Martin’s Reapers, which are airships, and the Black Hawk helicopter, which are helicopters. The popularity of the Reapers, which currently comprise the bulk of the Air Force’s surveillance, ground attack and reconnaissance fleet, has given rise to a branch of academia dedicated to design of autonomous aircraft.
The effects of autonomous aircraft on air travel will be gradual, though the most heralded accident involving a drone occurred last October when a Predator was lost after takeoff from Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach, Virginia. In the event of a serious accident, like a crash, the Air Force is developing automated regulations to address the issue.
No one has ever flown a bullet plane, so none of us knows for sure whether they can be completely unmanned. Each aircraft has two computer processors, each with 512 kilobytes of memory and 8 megabytes of cache, but they are able to reason computationally in a world of optical, tactile and radio controls. The systems on the original bullet planes could also vary in performance, so they operated on reduced power only on takeoff and landing.
On any given day, there are at least 1,200 unarmed drones at any one time, as well as some hundred piloted combat aircraft, which typically fly at altitudes of 10,000 feet or more. No one seems to know what percentage of all those drones are autonomous, but the percentage of surveillance drones among those in the military is estimated to be around 60 percent. So, given that rate, it’s clear there’s plenty of ground for autonomous systems to cover.
The latest proof of concept of a bullet plane was demonstrated in November in a plane called the CASS Phoenix-X, which is built by the Swiss company Schuler Aeroportur AG. The company builds automatic aircrafts and automatic ground control stations that are at least as advanced as anything invented by Bakken.