The Future of Autonomous Flight: The Technology Clock Ticks On
By James Vasatka|December 2019
My family immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s in pursuit of the American dream. Leaving the European system of dictated standing of wealth, they dreamed of a land where they could come from nothing and become anything. The dynamic system of America offered hope that the fruits of their aspirations and hard work could be harvested.
My generation was raised during the Cold War with an eye on the Doomsday Clock counting down to the man-made global catastrophe of nuclear war or climate change. Our nation was in a technology-driven race to prevent the existential threat to our life, our liberty, and our dreams. The space race was the inspiration for my career in aerospace.
With the end of the Cold War, the threat receded and a new one emerged. In his 30 April 1992 speech to the Aero Club of Washington, D.C., Mr. A. D. Welliver, CTO of The Boeing Company, introduced a new clock, the Technology Clock. This clock represented our economic security and a countdown to the loss of U.S. leadership in aerospace.
A quarter of a century later, we are in an era of technology disrupters to our society, the aerospace community, and the global balance of power. A tipping point offering the promise of societal as well as environmental benefits is occurring from the confluence of social trends, technological advancements, and military and commercial interests.
Uncrewed and autonomous flight provides an example of the confluence of disruptive technologies which, in their infancy, are already providing social and economic benefits. Delivery of medical supplies to remote areas, search and rescue, and remote monitoring of critical infrastructure are only a few examples. I look forward to the day I can fly over Seattle’s congested traffic!
The technical challenges to building this future include creating a safe transition for these vehicles into the operation of the airspace system, and defining the regulatory framework for replacing the current human-centric pilot and controller functions. The implementation of a regulatory foundation for emerging technologies requires 1) a clear framework and classification for the apportionment of risk to the aviation system components for the varying degrees of automation vs autonomous learning systems, 2) clarity of the contribution of deterministic systems (the machine) and non-deterministic systems (the pilot) to safety, 3) clarity of the safety level required for various degrees of autonomy and for new technologies, and 4) validation of the methods used to ensure compliance.
While our members and key stakeholders have made tremendous progress toward addressing the challenges, a remark by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden at the 2013 AIAA AVIATION Forum hints at our biggest challenge. He commented that he would like to see the aviation community more active, noting “If I got half the pressure from this community that I get from one Congressman on going to a distant planet, we’d be OK.” His comment strikes at the heart of the speedbump to realizing the full potential of autonomous flight: we lack a common intent.
Realizing the full potential of uncrewed and autonomous flight is a shared responsibility of government, academia, infrastructure providers, operators, manufacturers, and suppliers. Our community must come together to engage policymakers to assure they understand what must be done, what is at risk, and what R&D and infrastructure investments must be made to complete the foundation for uncrewed and autonomous flight.
The unifying strength of our members’ shared values and their technical leadership roles uniquely position AIAA to bring the stakeholders together. These values include:
• Collective and Collaborative Capabilities: There is strength and reason in diverse disciplines.
• Knowledge Excellence: Intellectual pursuit requires education and learning to expand upon current thought.
• Challenge and Excitement in the Work: We desire to make a difference.
• Honor and Achievement: We must promote the value of the profession to the public.
• Future Vision: We believe in the importance of what we do, and that there is ever more work to be done.
As the Doomsday and Technology Clocks march toward midnight, imagine the day where a rising nation announces that they have tethered an uncrewed vehicle to their latest fighter. Then imagine how the balance of power begins to shift.
The price for losing our technical leadership will be high: loss of jobs, a declining economy, and a shift in the balance of power. We must start the conversation with policymakers on how this generation will come together to drive the confluence of technology disruptors to address societal concerns and to assure the dream is passed to the next. ★