The Air Force is so full of nerds.
I spent half a day at the unmanned aircraft conference at UND today and my note-taking hand is tired from trying to keep up with the technical lectures and rapid-fire PowerPoint presentations.
There was this discussion on Air Force unmanned aircraft doctrine that was so peppered with jargon it left my head spinning. The fellow giving the lecture sounded like he was the kid that raised his hands everytime the teacher asked a question.
There were flow charts, tables, words like "phase 3," "group 4," "CCDR" and "AFOSR."
There were several discussions about new technologies under development or in need of development that were the equivalent of reading a year’s worth of Popular Science. It was pretty awesome.
So, aside from that vision of the future that’s in the Air Force’s unmanned aircraft systems flight plan, which I talked about yesterday, here’s more nerd stuff for ya (or at least the stuff I can remember):
- Besides operating by themselves or in swarms of other unmanned aircraft, the Air Force is looking into something called the "loyal wingman," according to Steve Bishop of Air Force Special Operations Command. This is where, with the right software algorithm, the unmanned aircraft follows a manned aircraft around and helps it by either lugging lots of weapons or defending against attack or providing extra fuel.
You know what this sounds like? It sounds like those Japanese video games from the early 1990s where you get this "companion fighter" that doubles the number of giant fireballs your fighter spits out. (I swear to God, I only played those games at other people’s house. I had better things to do.)
- The concept of modularity, explored yesterday, got some fleshing out from Col. Eric Mathewson, director of the Air Force UAS Task Force. He was talking about modularity for the proposed MQ-X, which everyone says is the follow-on to the MQ-9 Reaper, but, in fact, the Reaper’s attack mission was only one of many intended missions.
I asked the colonel what was wrong with bolting various pods and weapons to hardpoints, which is how you change missions for manned aircraft these days, so I figured. He said the Air Force had something bigger in mind, like turning a ground attack aircraft into a cargo plane or a tanker.
I then asked why you’d want to do that because the airframes would have to be different; an attack aircraft needs to fly differently than a cargo plane, which needs to fly differently than a fighter. He said the specialized attack aircraft would have their own airframe, but much of what the Air Force does is with aircraft like C-130s, which serve as cargo planes, tankers and gunships (not to mention psyops platforms).
Col. Mathewson also mentioned that the Air Force was investigating whether the MQ-X would have modular wings. So we’re talking swept wings for flying fast and big long wings for loitering. It’s like a LEGO plane.
(By the way, this report says the Air Force thinks the MQ-X could be a stealthy and hypersonic. I thought they just wanted a frickin’ C-130.)
- The ability to land automatically is already available for some unmanned aircraft, but now the Air Force is looking at automated mid-air refueling and electronic warfare, according to Col. Jeff Turcotte at the Air Force Research Lab.
- Unmanned aircraft also come in small packages, called micro air vehicles, or MAVs. Col. Turcotte said it’s easy to make a regular paper airplane and make it soar a good distance. But if you make it the size of a fly, it’ll just dive. Aerodynamics work different at that level or something. That’s why researchers are turning to insects for inspiration, making MAVs that flap their wings using tiny piezoelectric elements.
The wing flapping thing, though, is apparently the easy part.
A big challenge is power. A fly-sized MAV can’t lug a battery around yet flies can hover around the room and drive you nuts all day with a tiny and light fuel source. Researchers are looking at biological fuel sources — sounds like sugars and ATP – and enzymes that can make the fuel release energy more efficiently. They’re also looking into MAVs that can eat plants, just like insects.
Another big challenge is a computer that can efficiently fuse all the sensor data and act on them. A fly’s brain isn’t that big, but, amazingly, it can use its sensors to control its own flight and navigate around its environment, two separate functions.
Also, the MAV will have to be smart enough to operate on its own. If the thing is in Ahmadinejad‘s underground nuclear bomb factory, it’s going to be pretty hard to send a signal down there to control the MAV remotely.
There was a lot more nerd stuff on the PowerPoints, but I couldn’t write fast enough.