Jon Platts on Unmanned Air Vehicles

Today was the last of the scheduled guest speakers, Jon Platts of Muretex. Muretex specialises in aircraft autonomy and unmanned air vehicles and was founded by Jon after leaving the air force. Despite covering the same subject as Isabella Panella the talk was significantly different. One element of the talk was the political and moral implications of autonomy; the fear of terminator-like drones. Autonomy is already in use and accepted in many aircraft, the majority of commercial flight time is controlled by autopilot, but the technology is capable of going much further the question is are people. As a result decisions tend to have various levels of autonomy: fully automated, automated unless halted by pilot, automated with pilot’s authority, pilot only decision. This allows the designers to categorise the system, allowing them to prevent the system from making a decision that is politically or morally considered to be a human decision.

Jon played a clip from the very fun film Spinal Tap, where Nigel explains that their amps go to eleven, to demonstrate the fact that clients are not entirely sure what autonomy is but are sure they want more of it. This relates back to the subject raised by Ken Evans that getting the requirements correct is often difficult.

The talk covered the hardware used in their UAV systems, but focussed more on the relation between the pilot and machine. Many scenarios were covered, one of which was automating the control of the aircraft, so instead of controlling each element of the plane (wings, thrusters, etc.) the pilot simply give the plane a direction. Another example given was the automation of landing a Harrier on a carrier ship, which emphasised the importance of feedback from the system to the pilot. The pilot was provided with a constant feed of what the system is doing and what it is planning to do, giving the pilot confidence in the system. As well as improving user interface it came across that reducing workload on pilots it a key issue for Muretex and was an important measurement when testing any new systems. An example of this was the recent development of one pilot controlling four UAVs in addition to his own aircraft. A pilot typically controls a targeting pod, mounted on the underside of the plane, to survey the environment, but Muretex sought to test how putting the pilot in control of four UAVs would affect the pilot’s workload. Jon presented the results of the system at several stages throughout its development, showing that while the system was being tested using simulators they were able to alter the system to improve performance and lower the pilot workload required. After simulation testing and development the system was then tested in the air. The system was found to be no more demanding than using a targeting pod, but far more effective, significantly reducing the time taken to find, identify and attack a target.

Overall the talk proved interesting, looking at the subject of unmanned vehicles from political, moral and user’s points of view, which lead to a talk that was both technically interesting and philosophically thought provoking.