So, we have “drones,” “unmanned aerial vehicles,” “UAVs,” “unmanned combat air systems,” “UCAS,” “remotely piloted vehicles,” and on and on.
Enter a new word in modern aviation technology: Autonomous.
Though quick to point out that autonomous does not necessarily mean unmanned, there is growing use of that term as significant aviation companies like Sikorsky have launched research programs like MATRIX Technology.
A report by Graham Warwick of Aviation and Space Technology (“AW&ST”) captures the objective:
Sikorsky sees in autonomy the ability to fly more missions, less limited by pilot availability, adverse weather or restricted visibility; fly missions more effectively, by eliminating sources of pilot an operator error; enable new missions in dangerous environments or with long durations; and reduce ownership cost by increasing reliability, reducing crewing and improving safety.
The concept (and phraseology) of “reduced crewing” is popping up in recent articles on UAVs, too. Interestingly, technology is not the overwhelming barrier, but as AW&ST aptly put it, “[s]ocial acceptance, certification methods and cost-effective integration of air-ground technology and procedures” are the concerns.
The manner in which UAV technology is outpacing, and in fact extinguishing the role of human beings, is reminiscent of the beginning of the jet age where human physiology simply could not keep up with highly maneuverable jet fighters flying at the speed of sound. Indeed, fighter pilots frequently train to avoid red-outs and black-outs and debilitating mental and physical conditions that are caused by a mis-match in human and machine capability. With UAVs, apparently, there is a push to just let the machine do the task – autonomously.