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US Army plans robot planes operated by non-pilots

Pilots: 'This will set back robot planes for decades'

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Military pilots are up in arms* over US Army plans for substantial, powerful drone combat aircraft to be operated by mere mortals without wings on their chests.

The flying death machines in question are the US Army's new version of the well-known US Air Force Predator. The army's "Sky Warrior" version is a somewhat enlarged variant on the original Predator-A, though not as large and puissant as the Predator-B, aka the "Reaper". A Sky Warrior can carry much less ordnance than a Reaper.

The thing that makes the Sky Warrior different is that it doesn't need a large operating staff of fully-trained human pilots. Ordinary Predators and Reapers are normally handled during landing and takeoff by a qualified pilot on the ground at their operating base in the theatre of war. While flying missions, they are controlled via satellite by different pilots who are normally in America. As the drone planes can stay up for very long periods, these pilots normally work in shifts, requiring even more personnel.

Far from making pilots obsolete, Predator and Reaper type systems actually demand more of them, and plenty of other support personnel too. This may be one reason why air forces - traditionally run by pilots - have been so tolerant of them.

But the US Army has no interest in having lots of pilots. It just wants aircraft overhead doing a job as cheaply as possible. Thus the Sky Warrior can land and take off automatically, and - it seems - will be handled in flight by people without wings on their chests at all.

The Sky Warrior programme is the point at which unmanned aircraft move from being remotely piloted to remotely operated, a key step along the road to being fully autonomous - true killer robots. (Software has already been demonstrated which can handle groups of drones to carry out complex tasks - eg, following a vehicle - with only minimal human supervision.)

Bill Sweetman, doyen of aerospace journalists, attended a recent conference in London on flying killer robots. Most of the attendees were air force types, and unsurprisingly they were angry and worried about the Army plans.

"We're allowed to be in civilian airspace, 1000 feet away from jumbo jets. Who's going to like a non-rated Army officer doing that?" one Predator pilot asked.

"In order to apply lethal force you should be a rated aviator," commented another, referring to the Sky warrior's potential to carry eight Hellfire missiles, each capable of destroying a tank. That said, other things can apply this level of lethal force; for example another tank, often commanded by a lowly, non-aviator corporal in the British Army.

Underlying the aviators' anguish, says Sweetman, is "a real concern that if the Army has got it wrong, a blue-on-blue disaster or a midair will set back the development of UAVs by decades".

Sweetman, a staunch friend of air forces everywhere in the eternal baiting and bureaucratic warfare among armed services, also noted that the only speaker at the conference who approved of the US Army plans was one from General Atomics, makers of the Sky Warrior. (Sweetman spoke himself.)

Of course, pilots don't always prevent disasters. Indeed, in a recent case involving the crash of a Predator-B operated by US Customs, a fully-trained pilot with thousands of hours in the air caused not only the crash but a serious crisis for local air-traffic authorities. It's hard to see how a specialist Army warrant officer would be any more likely to commit this kind of error.

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