Air Force Tests Autonomous Drones

The United States Air Force recently tested a new autonomous flight system for use on small unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. The system was developed in conjunction with John’s Hopkins University. The unmanned aerial vehicle system is designed to communicate flight information, such as position, speed, and aircraft orientation back to an artificial intelligence system that is designed to control the aircraft if it has violated predetermined course information. The system, called the Testing of Autonomy in Complex Environments, or TACE for short, can monitor autopilot software and re-direct the unmanned aerial vehicle back to a safety area if it approaches a virtual border. This functionality could be useful for many purposes, and one main commercial use would be to prohibit drone flight around manned aircraft or within certain restricted airspace. Flights of unmanned aerial vehicles in prohibited areas is a common occurrence among amateur pilots and poses a significant safety risk to manned aircraft. A system to virtually block unmanned aerial vehicle flight from prohibited areas would be a step towards safer air travel.

The Testing of Autonomy in Complex Environments system also fulfills the function of an simulated entity for use with live aircraft flight. In other words, the Testing of Autonomy in Complex Environments system will be able to fly along other aircraft as a “virtual wingman” with simulated sensors, to enhance constructive flight training and during combat. An autonomous flying system could be a significant asset to the warfighter.  The Testing of Autonomy in Complex Environments development comes as a part of the 2018 National Defense Strategy to develop, test, and implement autonomous and AI systems for use by the Air Force. The Air Force’s Combined Test Force with John’s Hopkins University plans to conduct more autonomous flight testing of the Testing of Autonomy in Complex Environments system and will test on unmanned aerial vehicles that can fly up to 250 miles per hour during the summer of 2019.

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