May 08, 2020 Aerospace and Defense

From Self-driving Vehicles to Autonomous Drones: Outlook on Autonomous Capabilities

By Andreea Volusincu

A.Volusincu

Great advancements have been made on the autonomous flight front over the last decade, and the technology powering next-generation unmanned aircraft is still jumping by leaps and bounds. With continuous investment from the commercial and defense sectors alike, the concepts that are being prototyped now are futuristic and cross industry boundaries. Autonomous cars intersect with autonomous drones, and even with the NFL yellow line technology, as we found out in the last episode of the podcast series “The Impact of Unmanned Systems.”

In the series finale, John McHale sits down with Francis Govers, Autonomy Lead for Advanced Vertical Lift Systems at Bell Flight and Matt Jones, Chief Systems Architect at Wind River, and discusses the technological capabilities required for autonomous flight. This episode looks at the subsystem related issues for air mobility initiatives, from autonomy levels, to software capabilities such as virtualization and build-in cybersecurity. Let’s preview the topics to be discussed.

Evolving adaptive autonomy and controls is becoming a strong field of work. By allowing technologies to adapt and gain public acceptance at the same time, this approach puts in place a phased transition to full autonomy, using optional pilotage concepts. These concepts are not new. They have been used before in the defense world. This year alone, several RDT&E programs that aim to develop advanced models for Future Vertical Lift platforms include advanced flight controls and state-of-the-art algorithms for autonomy with optional pilotage, and teaming. Both FLRAA and FARA are foreseen to be fly-by-wire and will have different levels of autonomy built in. For the commercial world, autonomous taxis may see a phase where pilots are on board to ensure back-up control in case of emergency situations, but largely relying on automation for normal operations, with a plan to switch to full autonomy once the concept is accepted by the public.

On the system level, software reuse is going to be critical to advancing the widespread deployment. Modular open systems will be a key part of maintaining sustainment affordability. It’s also the best path forward for harmonization in the safety critical world when it comes to ensuring software meets the criteria for different governing bodies such as the FAA or EASA. The automotive world has been doing this for quite some time with AUTOSAR and GENIVI initiatives.

Harmonizing all the technologies needed for autonomous flight such as RTOSes, to open source software and cloud products will be done across many levels – standards, software, and system. Intellectual property will also likely be in the application layers, not the service layer. This puts a greater emphasis on commonality, reliability, and a shorter supply chain.

For more insights, listen to “The Impact of Unmanned Systems” podcast, episode 4 “Technological Capabilities for Autonomous Flight."

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