Controlling Naval Drones from the Cockpit

Naval Postgraduate School students continue to do interesting work in the field of unmanned aviation. LCDR Eric McMullen, USN, and MAJ Shane Grass, USA, conducted a research project entitled "Effects of UAV Supervisory Control on F-18 Formation Flight Performance in a Simulator Environment."

The increase in cockpit workload attributed to new technologies and the shift from two-seat to single seat naval aircraft is taxing human mental capacity.   The Navy envisions that some day swarms of unmanned aircraft will be controlled at least in part by onboard flight crew and the research was designed to gage the impacts of this idea on flight performance.

Data for the study was collected from 34 Navy and Marine aviators who flew three five-minute F-18 simulator sessions where their performance in formation flying was compared during two secondary distraction tasks. The "traditional" task was target persecution with a electro-optical Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) pod while the futuristic task was the integration of supervisory command and control for a small group of semi-autonomous UAVs.  The aviators controlled the simulated UAVs utilizing tablet computers running an application called the Semi-Autonomous Wingman Control Interface (SASWI).
Naval aviator tests ability to control UAV while flying in formation.
The study concluded that controlling a UAV from the cockpit was significantly more challenging than traditional secondary tasks.  The knowledge gained from the study may some day contribute to improved crew resource management (CRM) and pilot workload management as well as flight safety resulting from the modification of flight procedures.


  1. Fascinating - perhaps this will drive us all back toward airpower orthodoxy - large aircraft have huge tactical economies of scale, if we can figure out the defenses piece. Swarms of these aircraft, controlled by larger crews (rather than one overtasked pilot, a path that defaults to de facto autonomy), do better than individual manned aircraft or autonomous craft.


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