QinetiQ Achieves UK’s First Airborne Manned/Unmanned Crew Demonstration – Drones Information
Helicopters and drones work successfully as a team in the air. The drone switches between independent and human-controlled reconnaissance according to the commands of the helicopter operator.
The demonstration, which took place over the military areas in Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, UK, on June 19, included a manned helicopter and a semi-autonomous drone that worked together to identify potential targets in a particular area. An operator on board the helicopter was able to switch between monitoring the images returned by the drone’s cameras and operating independently, searching for and identifying potential targets, and only alerting the operator when a decision was required. This work is funded by the Army’s Research and Experimental Center using the Defense and Security Accelerator (DASA) competition framework, and from the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) to the British Army as part of the Army Warfighting Experiment 2019 (AWE19) in September delivered). The success of the demonstration was particularly impressive as it was carried out at a time of significant constraints due to the Covid 19 pandemic.
Improvements in robotics and autonomous system technologies, combined with the need to improve military effectiveness in times of financial constraints and the desire to remove people, have led the armed forces to conclude that teams are made up of people and machines an essential part of how the military will have to operate in the future. As part of this process, many countries are investing in a better understanding of how this combination works best and how to ensure that such teams can be used safely and safely in live environments.
There have been several demonstrations of manned / unmanned teams in the air in other countries, but the first successful demonstration in the UK is remarkable for three reasons:
1. The entire process was controlled via a point-and-click interface on a portable tablet on board a standard H125 helicopter. This indicates that very few changes are required on a host aircraft for a manned / unmanned team to work effectively in the air. It shows how easy it could be to build such a team around a manned aircraft.
2nd. The manned / unmanned team was created using a number of different technologies from different suppliers. To date, most of the demonstrations used products from a single company, so from the start they were designed to work together as a connected system. The QinetiQ demonstration used equipment and machines that were not specifically designed for collaboration. This shows a more open and technology independent approach for manned / unmanned teams. This increases the options for defense and security customers and may offer a faster and less costly way to become a team player.
3rd The demonstration included the successful transition of control between different human operators. Control of the drone was transferred safely and effectively from one person to another throughout the experiment. This not only ensures that an unmanned drone can always be controlled by the person who is best able to make decisions, but also paves the way for a more collaborative approach to the use of defense equipment. Both defense and security organizations see a greater need to work between sovereign forces and between nations to counter common threats from unpredictable opponents. The ability to easily share devices and seamlessly shift control of assets from one trusted party to another could make it easier for countries to work with a single pool of assets. This ultimately reduces costs and increases agility.
Major Ben (name withheld for security reasons), a British Army pilot who works with Dstl, said:
“We followed QinetiQ’s progress when it prepared the system and saw it in action. We believe that this could mean a change for us. The possibility of using a manned / unmanned helicopter with a manned helicopter in the British fleet has great potential. We can’t wait to get our hands on the system and put it through its paces during the AWE19. “
To deliver the successful demonstration in pace, more than just technical skills were required. QinetiQ needed to find an inexpensive way to run the trials without being significantly dependent on customer resources.
“To make this possible, we had to take a mission-led approach to innovation1 and see how we could use what we already had available,” said Rob Scott, program manager at QinetiQ. “We took full advantage of our live, virtual and simulated test environments, as well as the facilities and resources available under our long-term partnership agreement with the MOD. We are particularly pleased that we were able to carry out a live test program with one of our own H125 helicopters. It provides a realistic platform for repeatable experiments and saves the British MOD time and money by not having to divert scarce operational resources for experiments. “